For Female Marines, Tea Comes With Bullets |

Cpl. Christina Oliver, center, and other female Marines attached to a male battalion patrolled recently in Helmand Province.
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Published: October 2, 2010

MARJA, Afghanistan — They expected tea, not firefights.

But the three female Marines and their patrol were shot at late on a recent day, when a burst of Kalashnikov rifle fire came from a nearby compound. The group hit the ground, crawled into a ditch and aimed its guns across the fields of cotton and corn.

In their sights they could see the source of the blast: an Afghan man who had shot aimlessly from behind a mud wall, shielded by a half-dozen children. The women held their fire with the rest of the patrol so as not to hit a child, waited for the all-clear, then headed back to the base, survivors of yet another encounter with the enemy.

“You still get that same feeling, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m getting shot at,’ ” said Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, 20, speaking of the firefights that have become part of her life in Marja. “But you know what to do. You’re not, like, comfortable, because you’re just — ” She stopped, searching for how to describe her response to experiences that for many would be terrifying. “It’s like muscle memory.”

Six months ago, Lance Corporal Robertson arrived in Afghanistan with 39 other female Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., as part of an unusual experiment of the American military: sending full-time “female engagement teams” out with all-male infantry patrols in Helmand Province to try to win over the rural Afghan women who are culturally off limits to outside men.

As new faces in an American counterinsurgency campaign, the female Marines, who volunteered for the job, were to meet with Pashtun women over tea in their homes, assess their need for aid, gather intelligence, and help open schools and clinics.

They have done that and more, and as their seven-month deployment in southern Afghanistan nears an end their “tea as a weapon” mission has been judged a success. But the Marines, who have been closer to combat than most other women in the war, have also had to use real weapons in a tougher fight than many expected.

Here in Marja — which, seven months after a major offensive against the Taliban, is improving but remains one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan — the female Marines have daily skirted the Pentagon rules restricting women in combat. They have shot back in firefights and ambushes, been hit by homemade bombs and lived on bases hit by mortar attacks.

None of the 40 women have been killed or seriously injured, and a number have worked in stable areas where the shooting has stopped, but many have seen good friends die.

One of the women, Cpl. Anica Coate, 22, was on patrol in early September in southern Marja five feet behind Lance Cpl. Ross S. Carver, 21, when he was shot through the mouth and killed by an insurgent sniper. Corporal Coate was the first to reach him, but she could not stop the bleeding. A week later, at a memorial service in Marja for her friend and two other Marines killed around the same time, she said she would not volunteer for the female engagement teams again.

“It’s not the living conditions, it’s not the mission, it’s this,” she said, gesturing toward a memorial display of boots, rifles and dog tags belonging to the dead Marines. She was, she said quietly, “too much of a girl to deal with these guys getting killed.”

There have been many other strains as well, not least some male officers who question the female Marines’ purpose and young infantrymen who remain resentful of the attention from commanders and the news media that the women have received. Stress, rough conditions and patrols in 100-plus-degree heat have caused almost all of the female Marines, like their male counterparts, to lose weight in Afghanistan, some nearly 20 pounds. A number of the women have seen their marriages end or their boyfriends leave them.

“It was starting ahead of time, but this definitely didn’t help the marriage,” said Lance Cpl. Sorina Langer, 21, who was divorced during her deployment in one of the most dangerous areas of Marja. “He saw it as walking out.” … Read more Here