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By Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Monty Burton
Special to American Forces Press Service
FARAH PROVINCE, Afghanistan, March 10, 2009 - Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment -- the ground combat element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Afghanistan -- now have a special group of people to help them complete their mission in Afghanistan.
The task force's all-female Marine team is interacting with the Afghan female population in southern Afghanistan -- a task considered culturally unacceptable for the male Marines operating there.
A similar program has been used in combat operations in Iraq, but this is the first time Marine forces in Afghanistan have employed the concept, officials said.
Marine Corps Capt. Mike Hoffman, commanding officer of 3/8's Company I, said the all-female team is an important asset for his Marines.
"[The team] provides us access to half of the population that we normally do not have access to," Hoffman said. "They did extremely well interacting with the female villagers."
Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Johanna Shaffer, the team leader, said their first mission, a cordon-and-search operation in support of Operation Pathfinder, was very successful.
"We were accepted by both the men and women villagers and were able to obtain valuable information about the way they lived and what they thought about the Marine Corps operating in the area," Shaffer said.
During the mission, the female Marines donned brightly colored head and neck scarves as a sign of cultural respect to the Afghan women.
"The scarves showed the Afghan women that we were women too, and we respect their culture," Shaffer said. "They automatically felt more comfortable with us. They showed us their homes, and even though they didn't have much, they were still very generous to us. They accepted us as sisters, and we're glad that we were here to help them..."
Although Afghan women tend to be more reserved than Afghan men, they still have a large influence on their children, Shaffer said, so engaging with them is important.
"If the women know we are here to help them, they will likely pass that on to their children," she said. "If the children have a positive perspective of alliance forces, they will be less likely to join insurgent groups or participate in insurgent activities."
Hoffman said the female Marines also were accepted by the village men.
"They were not opposed by the villagers," Hoffman said. "They had no problem allowing [the team] the chance to interact with their women."
The concept employed by her team varies greatly from the program in Iraq because of differences in Afghan culture, Shaffer said.
"The cultural background here is completely different than that of Iraq," Shaffer said. "Women here are more timid than in Iraq. There is less of a chance that an Afghan women would try to harm us, because they understand that we are here to help them.
"We also do not know much about the daily life of Afghan women," she continued. "This provides us not only the opportunity to learn about the women, but also to build and maintain faith and trust of the Afghan women."
(Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Monty Burton serves with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Afghanistan.)