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Portraits from the frontline

November 13, 2012

THE wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have compelled female soldiers to silently change the military culture on the battlefield.

The debate about whether British and American service-women should encounter direct combat on the frontlines remained undecided for over 10 years. The reasoning: women do not possess the physical and psychological stamina required in a combat zone, so they remain barred from the infantry, Special Forces and most ground artillery units. They can lead male troops on the battlefront but not fight alongside them.

But since 2001, women have proven indispensable, especially when it comes to interacting with and searching local women (and their homes) in conservative and unfamiliar cultures, in particularly in Afghanistan’s Helmand province where the British control military operations.

“You think you may never come back,” are the words of a young British Female Engagement Officer (FEO) drawn from female volunteers across the British army. She and others are receiving specialised language and cultural training to forge relationships with Afghan women in the most volatile parts of Helmand which the forces are preparing for 2014. Their job includes securing the roads around Helmand because security is vital to quelling the insurgency and for economic impact; searching for IEDs; and pushing out on foot, patrolling local villages to gauge the extent of Taliban influence.

Female soldiers contribute to the ‘white picture’ — a phrase describing the effect that FEOs contribute to thorough information-gathering, understanding local populations’ needs and motivations for intelligence purposes, and to win hearts and minds.

The phrase is also the title for photographer and former Royal Air Force officer Alison Basker-ville’s documentation of women in combat after her six-week embed with the British forces in Helmand.

Revealing the alternate view of life on the frontline for women, the photograph exhibition reminds us that female soldiers, whether fighting for the hearts and minds of Afghan women (and men) or fighting alongside their male colleagues, are expected to react to threats as trained soldiers. For new warfare, there must be new rules, say military analysts and that’s where women soldiers face the toughest challenges.

Tall and spirited, Captain Anna Crossley, 31, a nurse at Londons UCL hospital is photographed in full military gear against a mountainous backdrop near Camp Bastion. Fluent in Pushto after an 18-month tutorial, Crossley — who will return to Afghanistan next year — says: “It’s like any other job; like driving a bus.” Lieutenant Jessica French speaks colloquial Pushto; she has spent six months going into villages in Helmand talking to women and earning their trust, and has decided to go back in 2014 to continue with her role Local Afghan communities, especially women, find it difficult to understand the concept of a female soldier who speaks their own language but is unmarried, so most female soldiers explain they have a ‘Helmand husband’.

Capt Susanna Wallis, a Royal Signals officer and trainer, is photographed at a parade at the Kabul Military Training Centre: she has pushed for female recruits to graduate alongside men.

In Helmand, “it’s a tough world” the women concede, with male and female soldiers living side by side and facing similar situations. Military commanders on the ground now concede that women are as capable when out on patrol or flushing out insurgents. Fear must be nonexistent, as Lt Jessica French writes: “Fear, You must trickle through me, let me sleep yet wake me in the time of need.”

Recommendations in a US Department of Defence report to Congress reviewing laws and policies restricting women in the military states that the “elimination of gender-restricted assignment” is critical, making it essential for women to be allowed to serve at the battalion level of direct combat units. Women soldiers have been shot at and killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan but because they — especially American women — aren’t officially meant to be exposed to the fighting, they are denied certain disability benefits.

Recent studies suggest that deployed women are more than twice as liable to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder as male colleagues. In the UK, the Ministry of Defence bans women from serving in units where they are “deliberately required to close with and kill the enemy face-to-face”.

But even as no one questions the toughness and competence of female soldiers — most deployments include foot-patrols through the streets of volatile towns and villages, serving as gunners on vehicles, disposing of explosives and driving trucks down bomb-riddled roads or even conducting raids in disregard of official policy — the militaries of the UK and US are not ready to adopt and change policies to include women across the full military spectrum.

Women are allowed to serve alongside men in Canada (which recruited women for its infantry), Israel, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, but it was only this year that American service-women were inducted into key military positions (in the Marine Corps) that were earlier reserved for men.

With more than 225,000 women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan according to official estimates, women comprise 15 per cent of the US armed forces with many serving unofficially in combat roles. Almost 150 American service-women have lost their lives.

Baskerville talks of the women she befriended as being equal to male soldiers when deployed on the ground. But “women are also pacifiers and able to use the right language to engage others through sharing their personal experiences about what it’s like to be a woman in combat”.

The determined look, captured in a photograph, of the head of the department of women’s affairs in Gereshk in Helmand is telling: “It all starts with education. If we can teach these young girls that they have a right to be free then perhaps we can change things for the next generation of women for Afghanistan,” says Gullali Sheraz, who is the head of the Department of Womens Affairs in Gereshk in Helmand.

The writer is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.