The early 2000s brought important opportunities for women to serve on the front lines of combat in the U.S. military. With operations increasing in Iraq and Afghanistan, a region of the world where gendered spaces are common and intergender relations are often restricted, informal teams of female U.S. service members had to be established out of mission necessity.
As the added value these women brought to operations became clear, gradually these ad hoc teams became formal training programs. Military branches developed female teams and trained them in the duties necessary for this new program. The Marine Corps was the first branch to formalize this initiative, naming it the Lioness Program. Female Marines were “attached to combat units to search Iraqi women and children who may be trying to smuggle money or weapons through security checkpoints in Iraq.” The Army also formalized and trained soldiers to meet this need, creating Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) and Female Engagement Teams (FETs). FETs were established due to the critical need for cultural sensitivity as women service members could enter spaces and conversations that their counterparts could not, making their roles unique and vital to mission success.
Once fully trained, the soldiers selected for the FET program deployed with units to Iraq and Afghanistan with special skills that not only improved the mission of the U.S. Army, but also the effectiveness of aid and development programs, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and NGO programs.
Yes, FETs were trained as soldiers, but they were so much more. Many women were trained for additional supporting roles by attending accelerated courses in local languages and cultural customs, intelligence work and briefing methods, and medical practices specific to women’s health applicable in austere conditions. On missions, they were trained to look for household items, behaviors, or linguistics out of the ordinary that could lead to intelligence opportunities or detaining combatants. On regular convoys, they were trained to take note when familiar faces were missing on the street or when children weren’t playing in their usual spaces. Interfacing with local, regional, and national foreign leaders, FETs would advise on how to break down gender barriers in the military and police forces, as well as how to recruit and integrate women as partners and team players in national security efforts. Working with military civil affairs, FET soldiers participated in discussions with local and regional community leaders to advise how to best distribute goods and services provided by USAID programs. Additionally, they supported civil affairs in helping local government officials apply for funding at the provincial level and prioritize their needs.
In locations with unusually high rates of maternal mortality, FETs were able to share valuable information on birthing hygiene and post-birth care while collecting information to share with American foreign aid programs. This information enabled more informed care and stronger support for women and children in these regions, while also empowering women to care for themselves and each other in the absence of trained medical professionals.
In support of U.S. government and NGO programs, FET members had discussions with local women to learn more about how resources were being allocated or about previously unknown or unconsidered barriers to accessing programs or services. In doing so, FET members enhanced not only military missions but guided U.S. government programs towards stronger efficacy. These women volunteered not only to serve the U.S. military mission, but also the women of combatant nations.
The U.S. military is no longer conducting operations in Afghanistan and has limited operations in Iraq, yet the impact of and knowledge gathered by the Lioness Program, CSTs and FETs continue to inform U.S. foreign aid programs, and their legacy goes beyond military service.
Similar to the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and the “Six Triple Eight” of World War II, these incredible service members have earned a significant and special place in military history. These present-day female-specific units trained alongside their male counterparts. They deployed with them, as members of their units, and they did work that only women could do, as members of a gender-integrated team. Across the globe, America’s military leadership with the Lioness, CST and FET programs have also inspired similar units and missions within other nation’s militaries, such as the UK, Australia, Canada, and Sweden.
As Women’s History Month closes this year, please join us in celebrating these strong, talented, and remarkable women, service members, and Americans. The lives of women in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military, and the outcomes of American foreign aid programs are better because of their service.
Photo Credit: The U.S. Army