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Cultivating Afghanistan: Female Soldiers of the ADT

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During an ADT Women’s roundtable, Deputy Commander Colonel Cindra Chastain says female soldiers in Afghanistan face the same challenges as the men:

“I don’t think there really is anything different about being a female here than it is about being a male here. It’s a strange place. We’re learning a lot of different things; we’re learning about the different cultures here,” she said.

Chastain says they also face the same dangers in this unpredictable battlefield, where insurgents and civilians are commingled:

“There used to be a rule, and it may still be there, about being in direct contact with the enemy-you couldn’t do that as a female. In this war, it doesn’t matter where you are at. There is no frontline, you’re in direct contact with the enemy anywhere you go when you’re outside of the wire. There really is no difference any more,” Chastain said.

The team medic, Specialist Vivian Ryan, says being a woman in the predominantly male ADT takes the right attitude:

“They’re used to me now. They’re like my irritating brothers. Seriously, I’ve got 34 irritating older brothers, younger and older brothers. So it’s like a family, maybe a little dysfunctional, but it’s a family,” Ryan said.

But Ryan, Chastain and Sergeant Melissa McCoy agree it also takes some gumption:

“You have to be able to do what they’re doing, and do it,” McCoy said.

“You have to learn to suck it up,” Ryan said.

“You have to learn to suck it up. You can’t be crying and whining and bitchy all the time. Now we can do it…,” Chastain said.

“I can do that when I go back to my room. I consciously used to tell myself don’t complain, because you don’t want to do that in front of them,” Ryan said.

“Don’t let them see you bleed. And then they’ll get you,” McCoy said.

“And I get to poke them with IVs and stuff, so…,” Ryan said.

“So you can get back at them,” Chastain said.

Being an American woman in conservative Islamic Afghanistan, where females lead tightly circumscribed lives, presents other difficulties. Chastain says it can be complicated to deal with Afghan men, who rarely interact with unrelated females:

“What I find very interesting is that they treat me with utmost respect, the men do, despite if I was an Afghan woman, they wouldn’t be speaking to me, or looking at my face. They’ll shake my hand and…,” Chastain said.

“Be wearing a burqa…,” McCoy said, cutting her off.

Lieutenant Melissa Gutzweiler says showing cultural respect by wearing a headscarf makes it easier for Afghan leaders to work with her:

“They’ll shake your hand slightly, but kind of pass you by quickly, but don’t glance at you or look you in the eye. But I’ve noticed I’ve covered up a couple of times and they look at you differently…. They give you a little more respect, and they do look at you,” Gutzweiler said.

ADT women have little contact with Afghan women kept isolated in their homes. Gutzweiler says she did visit with an Afghan woman who was a patient at the base hospital.

“I had to go around the corner, and she could lift up her veil and say hello to me. Other than that our conversation was through her burqa. She didn’t know very much English, and I knew just as much Pashto as she knew English, but she held my hand, she was very sweet. It was like any girls, giggling about just little stuff. It was neat,” Gutzweiler said.

Still, the lowered status of Afghan women troubles Gutzweiler and Ryan.

“I wish the woman had more pull or say in what their dealings were with their families,” Gutzweiler said.

“If they were more empowered?” Ryan said.

“Yeah, maybe choosing the food they ate, or what the children learned at school or what they did,” Gutzweiler responded.

The subject of Afghan men taking multiple wives is another cultural difference the ADT women say also confuses them:

“I don’t think that would work,” Gutzweiler said.

“No, that’s not cool,” Chastain responded, to laughter.

While the female soldiers find their mission challenging, they say it has increased their knowledge of the world and themselves.

“I think it helps make you a stronger, more independent person, the military, especially doing something like this: coming overseas, I left my daughter behind. I think it makes me a stronger person, stronger than I thought I was,” said Sergeant McCoy.

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