Female Marines build relationships in Helmand

30 Apr 2011 | Cpl. Colby Brown

She has long brown hair, but it’s coiled into a tight bun. Her glare burns through tactical sunglasses but somehow doesn’t betray the femininity in her mahogany colored eyes. Her M-4 rifle is slung loosely over her shoulder, and an M-9 pistol hangs from her hip.

Sergeant Kimberly Nalepka and the rest of her Female Engagement Team squad play an integral role in counterinsurgency operations here.

Nalepka, a Coral Springs, Fla., native, is a squad leader with the FET in Garmsir, the district where 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, operates.

“I have a passion for what I am doing,” Nalepka said. “We’re here to help the people, and it’s exciting because being able to have a deeper impact on the Marine Corps’ mission is something I have always wanted to do. Interacting with the people is an amazing opportunity, and being able to see the smiles on their faces makes everything worthwhile, because a smile is universal no matter what language you speak.”

In some of the local communities, a woman can’t interact with men outside her family. This is where Nalepka and her squad come into the equation.

“We’re here to build up the local community and improve the people’s trust in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” the 28-year-old sergeant said. “The Female Engagement Team is able to reach the part of the population that male Marines (can’t). In order to build a community, you have to build both the male and female side.”

Throughout Afghanistan, FET squads like this assist infantry battalions by supporting the counterinsurgency mission, but this is the first time 1/3 has worked with a FET.

The advantage of reaching out to Middle Eastern women was first realized in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2009, the first team was established with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, during their deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Now, the FET is a necessary asset to every Marine battalion.

“It makes me (proud) as a female and a Marine to be able to work alongside an infantry battalion,” Nalepka said. “I think it is great women are being employed in this kind of role in Afghanistan, and [it] gives me a positive feeling about how far a female’s role has come in the U.S. military and the Marine Corps.”

Each FET member volunteered for the duty and received the same pre-deployment training as the 1/3 infantrymen. They received Pashtu language and cultural training so they can be confident when interacting with the Afghan people.

When Lance Cpl. Victoria Rogers patrolled to a local school with her team leader, Cpl. Julie Buskirk, April 26, children stopped in the middle of the street and whispered to each other, and the men glanced blankly at the team. The children’s curiosity soon took control and they swarmed the team, asking about their gear or for a piece of candy.

For some of the local residents, this was the first time interacting with a woman from the United States. For others, it was the first time seeing a woman of different ethnic descent.

Rogers, a native of Splendora, Texas, said these engagements motivate her.

“Getting to know the local residents and gaining their trust helps the battalion with their mission,” Rogers said, “because (we find more friends) to tell us when to be more watchful in an area if they know something bad might happen. It’s a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of the Female Engagement Team.”

Although their primary mission is to engage females in Garmsir, the FET finds many other ways to help the local people. Currently in Garmsir, the squad regularly visits medical clinics and schools. These visits help the FET gain acceptance from the local community, which increases the likelihood of meeting more women.

The cultural difference is a challenge, said Rogers, but being able to help the Afghans is rewarding.

“The mission is going smoother in Afghanistan, and maybe employing females is the key,” the 22-year-old lance corporal said. “It’s obviously a combination of learning from our experience in Iraq and applying new ideas, but having the Female Engagement Team provides a different perspective of what can be done to help the local people of Afghanistan.”