CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- Just as the sun was setting on Checkpoint Salaang, Helmand province, machinegun fire was heard coming from a neighboring compound.
Soldiers with 1st Battalion, The Rifles, were brewing tea and preparing their evening rations when they heard the familiar sound of an AK-47 assault rifle being fired. Almost instantaneously, they grabbed their rifles, sprinted to their tents and threw on their flak jackets and kevlars. They then moved to take positions along the walls of CP Salaang. Already sitting on top of a HESCO barrier, with her rifle pointed in the direction of the machinegun fire, was Able Seaman Heidi Telford.
After everyone was in position, it was discovered that a patrol of Royal Marines from 45 Commando Battalion had come under attack from insurgents hiding in a compound 300 meters away. The Marines used a smoke grenade to conceal their movements as they made their way back to CP Salaang. Telford, and the rest of 1 Rifles, remained on the wall until the Marines were safe inside of the compound.
“The lads told me to get on the wall,” Telford said. “I didn’t know what was going on at first. The only thought that was going through my head was ‘Don’t come near me!’”
Telford’s father served for 23 years in the Royal Navy. Two years ago, while attending college and serving as a waitress at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport, Telford, who is now 21 years old, decided to follow in her father’s footsteps. She wanted to travel the world and meet different people. Needless to say she is getting exactly what she asked for.
Telford was formally trained to be a chef aboard ship. During her first deployment, she served in the galley aboard the Her Majesty’s Ship Portland from April to November 2010. It was during this deployment that her commanding officer recommended her to be assigned to the next Female Engagement Team going to Afghanistan.
In many parts of Afghanistan, women are not permitted to talk to or associate with men outside of their immediate family. This hinders male NATO troops from engaging with half of the country’s population. Telford, along with other FET members, works to bridge these cultural divides.
Telford is currently assigned to the 1 Rifles Battle Group and assists them in engaging with local communities in the district of Nahr-e-Saraj.
Recently, Royal Engineers constructed a bridge across the Nahr-e-Bughra Canal to help improve commerce and transportation for the local Afghan community. She now spends several hours each day on the southern side of the bridge, working with Afghan National Army soldiers to screen any females who might be smuggling drugs or weapons into the protected community.
“She has provided us with an ability to engage with females,” said Maj. Paul Kyte, commanding officer or Support Company, 1 Rifles. “She’s done a cracking job in liaison with the ANA warriors in separating the females traveling in vehicles and being able to search them, but more importantly to search the vehicles in which they’re traveling. It’s a sensitive issue in Afghanistan. We’ve got to be aware of the cultural sensitivities involved.”
Telford enjoys being able to greet local Afghan women and does her best to assure them she means no harm.
“They’re quite scared at first, but once they see me and see that I’m a female, they start smiling,” Telford said.
In addition to being a liaison between NATO troops and the local community, Telford performs the same tasks of the soldiers she serves alongside. She carries a rifle, goes on patrols, fills sandbags and mans a sentry post for several hours while wearing 45 pounds of body armor and enduring temperatures near 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
“She mucks in with everyone else,” said Sgt. Alex Miller, a linguist with Military Stabilization Support Team, Nahr-e-Saraj (South). “She wants to do an excellent job out here. She’s very enthusiastic about doing it.”
Telford admits the lifestyle she is now embracing is quite different than the one she was used to when she was serving at sea.
“I find it very hot and stressful,” Telford said. “It’s different sleeping on the ground and tasting dust in my mouth.”
Despite the strains that are put on her, Telford says she is able to manage thanks to the help of the soldiers she is serving with.
“They’re good,” Telford said. “They look out for me. I’d be lost without them.”