1MEF Marine Female Engagement Team returns home from Helmand Province in Afghanistan

Lance Cpl. Angela Pacheco cried as she embraced her parents during a welcome home celebration of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF) female engagement team that had been deployed for seven months in Afghanistan. Photo by Daily Titan Graphics Editor Jonathan Gibby

As soon as the bus carrying Marines, of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, who had been at war in Afghanistan came into view, tears began to stream down the cheeks of mothers and fathers who had not seen their daughters for seven months.

The marines didn’t arrive till 3:30 a.m. Friday, and leading up to their arrival their families waited in a hanger on base.

These Marines, called FETs (Female Engagement Teams of the United State Marine Corps.), are the first women to go on all-male foot patrols with Marine infantry units on the front line in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

The genesis of the concept for FETs came from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

During these conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need for interaction with female Muslims was recognized, according to a release issued by the Regional Command South West Public Affairs.

In January of this year, a mass message was sent out to female military to volunteer for an engagement team said Sgt. Guadalupe Rodriquez.

Those 40 women were trained to conduct FET missions full-time.

In the spring of 2010, First Marine Expeditionary Force deployed from Camp Pendleton, Calif. a FET company of roughly 40 U.S. Marines who came from various military occupational backgrounds, according to a press release from RCSW public affairs.

The main goal of this experiment is for the FETs to interact with Afghan civilians, specifically the women, because Afghan culture does not allow male Marines to interact with them.

These FETs support battalions of all-male Marines and are divided into two to three female Marine teams assigned to 16 different outposts across Helmand.

Early Friday morning, after a 20-hour flight, this first round of FETs returned home from Afghanistan to anxious family members.

Parents shared their stories.

“She would tell me, thank you mom for sending me this scripture because we had an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blow up and my girls didn’t get hurt but we read this right before we went,” said Johanna Carrillo, mother of Sgt. Vanessa Jones. “And we felt just like God took care of us.”

Jeannine Naslund, mother of 27-year-old Capt. Emily Naslund, the team’s executive officer, had clippings of writings Capt. Naslund had written on the front line to share with fellow parents.

“I’m a flight attendant and I’ll get this question at least once a week. ‘Does she think she’s doing any good over there?’ and I’m like, ‘excuse me, do you think you’re doing any good over here?’” Jeaninne said. “First of all, it’s not her job at that level to decide if it’s a good war or a bad war.”

Jeaninne explained the work her daughter had been doing in the seven months overseas.

“I know this one Afghan man said that, ‘when your men come, we know they come for war. But when your women come, we know they come for peace,’” Jeannine said.

Jill Mannion, another FET mother, teared up when asked how she felt now that her daughter was returning home.

Jill and Joe Mannion’s daughter, Lance Cpl. Kathryn Mannion, 24, is engaged to a fellow Marine, Danny Campbell. For the duration of this deployment, Jill kept her daughter’s engagement ring safe, wearing it until her return.

After waiting for hours, the time came to welcome their Marines home. But before they were able to, the FETs filed into formation and Capt. Naslund spoke to the parents, preparing them and sharing with them their daughters’ experiences for the past months.

“The women in which you are attempting to engage with are very, very closed off…the whole concept of this program is revolved around the fact that they are inaccessible to male Marines who are generally operating these dangerous areas,” Capt. Naslund said. “In the past seven months we were able to go on over 600 patrols and to engage with over 3,000 women.”

Family members of the FETs listened intently, waiting for their daughters to be dismissed. Capt. Naslund said her marines treated multiple civilians. The marines aided those with gun shot wounds and helped deliver a baby.

“These things are going to change the Afghan women’s lives for history… they will remember the female marines, they will remember Americans,” Capt. Naslund said. “Not to mention on a larger picture people will know now that female marines can hang!”

To that, shouts of approval thundered from the parents. And after closing remarks, Capt. Naslund shouted, “Fall out!” With that, the marines sprinted into the arms of their families.

Capt. Naslund answered questions about her personal experiences during deployment one on one with the Daily Titan.

Being in charge of the FETs these past seven months gave Capt. Naslund a new perspective on her career and the world, specifically the Pashtu culture, who follows traditional rules and practices the use of the Pashtu language, who live under difficult conditions.

Capt. Naslund came to realize that there are more opportunities in her career and that female marines can be out there on patrol and do what male marines can.

“I don’t think there has been or will be another experience like it for most of the girls. I think their day jobs are going to seem pretty boring after this,” Capt. Naslund said. “I mean, in counter insurgency there is really no front lines but they were out there.”

Counter insurgency, or COIN, is an attempt to step away from the fighting, to work with the people instead of fighting the Taliban, as explained by Lance Cpl. Mannion.

When asked what the FETs provided their male counterparts that wasn’t originally available to them, Capt. Naslund said access to Afghan women.

“So the biggest thing is influence. So in a counter insurgency the enemy hides amongst the people,” Capt. Naslund said. “You need their (the locals) support in order to win, otherwise you will never know who the enemy is until they start shooting at you. It’s not a war of attrition, it never will be.”

Capt. Naslund responded with directness when asked if she ever had to use her weapon.

“Me personally, no. My marines, yes,” Capt. Naslund said. “But it’s war, it happens.”

Marines had with various opinions on their experiences as FETs.

“It probably sounds cliche, but I definitely appreciate the rights we have as women a lot more,” Lance Cpl. Mannion said. “The area that we were in was very traditional. A lot of time just getting through the males of the compound to the women was frustrating.”

Sgt. Rodriquez described her deployment as a humbling and eye-opening experience.

“We got to see a part of Afghanistan that not only females, but some male Marines, never get to see,” Sgt. Rodriquez said.

Regarding the male Marines reaction to their presence on patrol, all the marines were similar in their responses. The males weren’t the friendliest at the start, they were initially skeptical, but by the end the FETs were treated like sisters.

The future of the FETs is uncertain. One more batch of FETs will take over where Capt. Naslund’s team left off and is being deployed from North Carolina. After that, it remains to be seen whether this experiment will become a recurring operation.

Support for women serving in combat units can be found locally in an amendment supported by Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California’s 47th district.

If given the option to serve in the FETs again, responses varied. Some said it was a one-time thing while others, such as Capt. Naslund and Sgt. Rodriquez, responded with an overwhelming “yes.”

About Laura Barron-Lopez