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5-20's Female Engagement Team making a difference

The FET's mission is to work with Afghan women and children in order to gain intelligence on the Taliban

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Spc. Wendy Vickery had a feeling that something wasn't right.

On a recent mission with Charlie Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment and Afghan National Army, or ANA, soldiers, Vickery's feelings and training paid off.

"I had a sense the ANA had not thoroughly search the back of the compound," she said. 

"So I made them go back and search the area again."

It's a good thing she did; the Afghan soldiers found over 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate, an essential ingredient for making IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.

"She's one tough and smart Soldier," Sgt. Nico Cordeiro observed.

Those words are music to the ears of Vickery and her sisters-in-arms Pfc. Heather Owens, Spc. Diana Zuniga, Spc. Heidi Olson and Spc. Jessica Kirt, all serving with 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

These five Soldiers, plus Sgt. Anna Cuthbertson, 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, are the battalion's Female Engagement Team, or FET.

The FET's mission is to work with Afghan women and children in order to gain intelligence on the Taliban and to help better their lives.

"Women make up over 50 percent of the population in Afghanistan," Cuthbertson pointed out.  "They are the eyes and ears of what goes on around them."

One of the stereotypes the FET works to change is the idea that Afghan women are submissive.

"They are not," Owens said strongly.  "They are very strong in their households, and they have power there."

During one recent mission to the village of Mutashim, Vickery and Owens talked with village women in order to gauge their living conditions and to gather intelligence.

"The FETs are wonderful to have with us," 1Lt. Ben Westman said.  "They give us a capability we simply would not have - the ability to talk with the Afghan women."

Initially begun by the Marine Corps during the 1980s, FETs became part of the Army's counter-insurgency strategy in 2009.

As for Vickery, Owens, Zuniga, Olson and Kirt, they all volunteered to become the first FET within 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

When not in the battle space, the FET recently opened the Zharay District Women's Center inside Forward Operating Base, of FOB, Pasab.

Recently, over 50 women and half as many children came to the center.  While there, they received advice on sewing, canning vegetables and fruits, birthing classes and farming classes.

It is an exercise in defying Afghan male chauvinism.

"While they are here, we teach them self-sufficiency skills to make a living," Cuthbertson explained.

She went on to explain that when an Afghan woman is widowed, she is not allowed to work.

The average Afghan woman has 7.2 children to provide for. 

To help these women, Cuthbertson and her FET empower the women to produce goods like hand-sewn scarves and canned fruits that are then turned over to a male who sells them at a market.

"In this way, we offer the women a way to be somewhat self-sufficient and earn money through creating a business for themselves," Cuthbertson added.

"It will take time to be successful, and we hope it works out," added Owens.

While working to grow Afghan women's economic standing, the FET also struggles against illiteracy.

As I watched, Kirt, Zuniga, Olson and three female Afghan interpreters circulated around the open-air room and worked with the children.

"Can you imagine the strides we would have made by now in this country had we started programs like this sooner?" Cuthbertson observed.

She also said the center could use cloth diapers and dry baby formula.

"There is so much that remains to be done for the women and children here," Cuthbertson added.

To help out, donations can be sent to Sgt. Anna Cuthbertson, D Company, 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, FOB Pasab, APO AE 09370.


5/20 Help:  Spc. Wendy Vickery and Spc. Diana Zuniga, members of 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment's FET (Female Engagement Team), work with women and children who visit the Zharay Women's Center at FOB Pasab.

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