Lance Cpl. Jacqueline Veres has been in the Helmand province of Afghanistan since March, working with a Female Engagement Team, a special force designed to build relationships and gather information from Afghan women.
“We are here for counterinsurgency and to win the trust and confidence of the Afghan women, men and children,” Veres said. “We are the voice for over 50 percent of the population.”
Cultural restrictions in Afghanistan forbid a woman from speaking to a man who is neither their husband nor a close relative.
The Female Engagement Teams’ mission is to search women at security checkpoints and patrol Afghan villages and towns, gathering information from women.
“No male Marine can talk to local women, so that’s when FET comes in and becomes their voice,” Veres, 21, said. “With every foot patrol that we do we engage women who would other wise never be heard.”
The Marine Corps Female Engagement Teams’ beginning goes back to the Lioness program, the program used to search women during military operations in Iraq.
“In 2008, the Marines realized there was a lot to be gained by engaging Afghan women, so they began to train female Marines to conduct engagements on a part-time basis in addition to their regular jobs,” said 1st Lt. Melissa Blyleven, who serves as the platoon commander for the Female Engagement Teams for Regimental Combat Team 8.
“In early 2010, they formed the first team of female Marines who deployed specifically to be on the FET and engage with the female population,” she added.
Blyleven oversees seven Female Engagement Teams in the province, including Veres’ team.
Besides gathering intelligence, the teams also strive to find ways to improve the women’s lives.
Veres said the team has five focus points for working with Afghan women: Community relationship-building, women governance, health, education and economic and employment opportunities.
“We have held several all women’s ‘shuras,’ the Afghan word for ‘meeting,’ which is almost unheard of in these areas,” Veres said. “We hear their problems and try to help the women. It’s a great feeling that by the end of the engagement the women are so grateful we are there. They usually invite us back for some tea or just to talk again.”
Blyleven said the teams have proven effective in not only building relationships but also discovering security threats.
“In a few cases they have even been able to collect information about the location of (improvised explosive devises) from the locals,” she said. Everywhere they have been they have managed to spread good will, which I think will be helpful in the long term.”