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A Talk with Eileen Rivers, Author of Beyond the Call

What are Female Engagement Teams? How did they come to be, and why were they necessary?

Female Engagement Teams (commonly called FETs) started with the Army in Iraq around 2003. At that time the Army called the groups of women Team Lioness. These women (about two or three on a team) routinely joined combat troops on missions to do the same with the female population that male soldiers were doing with Iraqi men—question them, search them, and, at other moments, protect them.

Imagine trying to study for an exam and only being able to read one side of your textbook. That’s the problem a few Army officers realized their units (and the Army as a whole) were encountering during the war in Iraq—cultural norms (under strict Muslim customs, women can’t speak to or come in contact with men who aren’t family) meant the military was only getting information from men. The valuable information that women may have been harboring was going unchecked and uncollected. Insurgents were certainly taking advantage of that. They were hiding written documents, cell phone sim cards, rolls of film, and other contraband on the wives, sisters, and daughters. The FET cut through that tactic and gathered a good amount of vital information that was used to track insurgents.

FETs also had another important function—nation building. They developed relationships with women in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These relationships helped women improve their lives. FET units helped poor women get microloans to start small business; they helped train and develop members of the Afghan Female Police; and they helped women exercise their right to vote. Those humanitarian acts also helped to fight the war—it changed the military’s image among local villagers. We became a more positive force, and gained support in fighting the terrorists.

 

Team Lioness began in 2003 and was adopted by the Marine Corps by 2009, but it was only May 2017 when the first women graduated from infantry basic training. Despite initiatives such as Team Lioness, why has gender-based combat exclusion only recently ended?

There are multiple reasons, in my view, that it took so long for the military to end gender-based combat exclusion. FETs themselves were fighting decades of institutional discrimination—which always takes an incredibly long time to change. As your question implies, even though FETs were going on combat missions with infantry platoons (participating in firefights, getting hit by IEDs, and often protecting their male comrades in arms), the military was actually denying that these women were in combat. Everything the women did contradicted military policy.

Instead of working on the best way to change policy, the military (and by extension the Pentagon) spent nearly the first decade of the FETs’ existence re-enforcing policies and practices that maintained the façade. Women weren’t allowed to drive off of the FOBs (forward operating bases) by themselves. This meant that some FET missions either went undone or were delayed. It also meant that some women had to get rides back to the FOB (since they weren’t infantry, they couldn’t stay in the field for extended periods of time) after multiple days in the field with infantry units. They then had to wait for a convoy to come through to hitch a ride back to the mission they were forced to leave. That policy, as Marine Corps reservist Zoe Bedell explained, actually put the women in more danger. Each time they traveled they exposed themselves to further possibility of attack or IED explosion.

The military has a history of using women as troops of convenience and only incrementally instituting changes through official channels that have long since been in practice.  Women were going to Vietnam (mainly as nurses) before the military officially required them to go through weapons training; women were fighting in the Gulf War beside men before they were allowed to train with men in basic; they were on the front lines before the collocation ban (which, in 1994, actually loosened previous restrictions on female proximity to combat). The same delay is seen in dropping the combat exclusion. Women, unfortunately, had to prove it before the military would acknowledge it. That fact ultimately denied women a lot of the protections they deserved for the fights they had waged.

 

One of the three women you focus on in your book, Captain Johanna Smoke, was placed in a Women in the Army (WITA) study instead of her original Special Forces placement. You wrote that this kind of forced placement happened throughout the Army to test whether women were fit for combat, even long after the formation of Team Lioness. Though exploitative, were programs like WITA essential to opening combat roles for women?

I wouldn’t say the program was exploitative, I’d say it was redundant. But yes, it was key to change. The Army needed some “official” record of how the placement of women in combat units below the brigade level would affect readiness, success in the field, and other things that can influence performance on the front lines.

 

In addition to the stories of three FET soldiers, you include the narrative of an Afghan woman who benefited from FET work. Why was it important to include her story?

Jamila’s story was amazing. It was so inspirational that as soon as I heard it, I knew I needed to include it.  I was looking for the story of a woman who benefited from FET work. The women of Afghanistan were so integral to what these teams of female troops did in the country, that they were already a part of the story before I found Jamila. But her life story allowed me to do a couple of things: 1) show how intense the relationships are that develop between the Afghan women and the leaders of these female engagement teams, 2) show the impact that female engagement teams had on the lives of Afghan women and how integral FETs were to Afghan female progress, and 3) show how desperate many Afghan women in the most remote and rural areas of the country were and the active role they took in changing their own lives. Jamila helped women register to vote—an act that can be deadly. Women showed up at these shuras—or meetings—that Jamila ran and Smoke co-hosted, terrified of the thought. They exhibited the ultimate courage (feeling fear, but doing the task anyway). That is strength. These women are modern-day suffragists. Their acts of defiance (though they seem small) are just as big as the acts of loud and open protests women waged in Great Britain and the US when they were fighting for the right to vote.

Jamila started off as a victim and then turned that story into one of compassion and triumph. She is the epitome of Afghan female strength. Yes, Afghan women suffer. The Taliban is horrible, but one thing that these FET women emphasized every time I talked to them is how strong Afghan women are. Instead of me saying that, Jamila’s story showed that.

So many American women, I think (at least I know I did) attach victimhood to Afghan women. We never see them as defiant, as trying to take charge of their own political destiny. Jamila is a foil to the American stereotype of Afghan woman.

 

You write that FETs were extremely effective at finding the anchor points of communities, and therefore able to use them and create distance between insurgents and the greater population in Afghanistan. What kind of tactics did the FETs employ that set them apart from their male counterparts?

So the engagement teams, just by virtue of being women serving in an extremely traditional Middle Eastern society, were able to jump a cultural barrier that men couldn’t—they talked to women and gathered information relevant to the fight against insurgent forces in Afghanistan. They were able to use the art of listening and casual conversation in ways that men weren’t used to, not just with women, but with Afghan men as well.

Women developed a way of relating to the local community that a lot of men in combat units hadn’t before seen. It was non-confrontational and patient; it relied on developing relationships with families in small villages and on revisiting those family members and their relatives in neighboring villages.

When men in the American combat units saw how well these techniques worked, they started using them to relate to Afghan men in surrounding villages when FETs weren’t available.

 

Was information gathering about insurgents the main goal of each FET mission, or did the goal vary depending on the team, location, and community? If it varied, what are some examples of the other mission objectives?

Information gathering wasn’t the main mission of each FET, but it was certainly something that all FETs engaged in and the information gathered was invaluable. Other aspects of the FET mission varied and certainly depended on location, what was happening on the ground, and the needs of women in local villages.

Sergeant Sheena Adams frequently handed out medical supplies to local women who, for example, had children who were suffering but couldn’t make it to a hospital. She also secured microloans for local women and helped them start small businesses selling clothing and jewelry in downtown markets.

The biggest part of Captain Johanna Smoke’s mission was supporting Jamila, who held shuras in villages throughout southern and western Afghanistan. These shuras included medical examinations for women and their children, female voter registration (a first for all of the Afghan women they encountered, some of whom were well past middle age), and doling out supplies such as blankets, radios, and food.

Major Maria Rodriguez said that her biggest missions were three-fold: gather information; pass out supplies; conduct medical examinations. Another major mission for her was training Afghan female police officers to take over where American military women left off as FETs rotated out of the country.

All of these FET efforts helped push back insurgents—they went a long way toward helping women make money, helping them become more independent, and alleviating their need to rely on insurgent forces to boost village economies.

The first priority for all FETs was participating in combat missions with infantry units (which included nighttime raids/searches, and frequently pulled women into battles with the enemy).

 

Some FETs influenced change for Afghan women. What can you tell us about Major Maria Rodriguez’s impact, in particular?

A large part of what Rodriguez did while the head of female engagement in Zabul Province was train Afghan female police officers. On the job training, to most American women, would sound like a very straight forward task. For Afghan women, it was not only incredibly complex but dangerous.

Afghan women who worked outside the home were threatened regularly by the Taliban, and some women were killed. In incredibly conservative rural areas of the province, males also threatened and killed their female relatives. For women who took on male-dominated professions, the threats were ten-fold. Insurgents called in death threats to the police station in Qalat City; male residents who lived in the vicinity also called in threats and labeled Afghan women sluts. At least one husband divorced his wife after he found out that she had joined the force. Female police officers also faced discrimination from within the department—they weren’t allowed to work or go out on patrol with their male counterparts. They were essentially locked away in a small room at police headquarters.

Despite these obstacles, Afghan female police officers were determined to work. And Rodriguez gave them a way to hone and direct that determination. By the time Rodriguez left Qalat City, the women had uniforms, were patrolling with their male counterparts and felt, for the first time, respected. She had given them a life, a sense of independence and validation. She also gave them the skills to help ensure their own safety. Afghan female police started finding and arresting members of the Taliban.

 

What is the “Kevlar ceiling,” and what does Sergeant Sheena Adams’s story teach us about it?

The “Kevlar ceiling” describes the difficulty enlisted women have getting promoted to higher ranks. This was especially a problem for women like Sergeant Sheena Adams, who left her regular job to participate in the FET mission. Instead of that effort being seen as a boost to her career—as it would have been for a man in her position—it almost became a detriment. Her promotional paperwork was lost and the hard work she had done on the battlefield was not only missed by her command (she was attached to a different unit), but per military regulations it couldn’t play a large role in her annual evaluation (none of her combat work related to her regular job as a helicopter mechanic).

The Kevlar ceiling pushed many women out of the military including Adams. It put females in the worst catch-22 possible (they had to be prepared to risk their lives and their careers) and put the military in the horrible position of using women when it suited the institution and not rewarding them—at least in terms of their careers—for the effort.

The fact that a Kevlar ceiling existed was one of the most obvious signals that the military needed to formally open combat roles to women. Females were performing the same duties on the ground as men, and were dying in the process. But because the military didn’t recognize women as combat soldiers, none of those efforts were acknowledged in ways that could push women up the ladder.

 

Not every battle for the women of the FET was fought abroad. What kinds of fights followed them after their tours and pushed them into action at home?

All the women faced obstacles when they returned from war, but Sheena Adams’ life most exemplified the fight for female equality in the military. Despite the Kevlar ceiling that stopped her from getting a promotion, she worked to save the FET program and attempted to turn it into one that gave a boost to women’s careers.

Because of her work, she became the face of female progress/combat equality in the military, even though she was struggling to keep her own job. She spoke to first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden about the FET; she was invited to President Obama’s State of the Union address; and she was honored as a woman of accomplishment during a ceremony at the vice president’s residence.

 

Do you think the fight against sexism in the Army is over with the end of combat exclusion?

In many ways I think the fight will heat up in a direction that’s very different from the overt sexism we’ve seen in the past, but that will be no less intense. Even after the first women graduated from Army Ranger School in 2015, and instructors along with other school officials ensured Congress and the public that the standards hadn’t changed, folks continued to question whether they had. There was a certain level of incredulity that a woman could actually make it through training that was so demanding. Rumors (among the public on social media and within the armed forces) spread that the women had received special treatment and a member of Congress, a veteran of the Iraq war, demanded proof that the women had indeed met the standards. Major General Scott Miller—who is an Army Ranger himself and who was a commander at Fort Benning—spoke at the ceremony during which two of the women graduated, and stated: “Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There’s an Army depending on us for correct information. Ladies and gentlemen…standards remain the same. A five-mile run is still five miles.” Stating things like that is important and will help to counter the sexism that is ahead.