Accomplishing the traditionally male role of route clearance missions, brings a unique blend of challenges and advantages to female platoon leaders of the 535th Engineer Support Company charged with the mission in eastern Afghanistan.
Since the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, U.S. Army engineers have cleared routes of improvised explosive devices and other dangers to ensure safe passage of Soldiers and supplies. However, most of these soldiers belong to Engineer Sapper Companies, Mobility Augmentation Companies or Clearance Companies which are made up of all male soldiers.
The 535th ESC, originally a construction company, is a mixed gender unit that is now being used for route clearance in Logar Province under Task Force Sword.
According to U.S. Army 1st Lt. Brittany Clark, a route clearance patrol platoon leader with the 535th ESC, from Kapolei, Hawaii, the gender diversity adds challenges when communicating with the local population, where women are not commonly allowed to speak to men who are not in their family.
She said female members of the unit usually get strange looks from Afghans who are not used to seeing female Soldiers clearing routes.
“I get a lot of stares, but I think that the locals on the routes have gotten used to seeing me now,” said Clark.
Former 535th ESC, RCP platoon leader, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Kimberly Jung, said Afghan men have a hard time believing the females are in charge.
“One time, I was approached by an Afghan man during a traffic control point operation, and he asked who I was. I said, I was the platoon leader. He said, ‘So you are in charge of the women?’ I said, ‘No, I'm in charge of everyone here, not just the women.’ He shook his head in disbelief and said, ‘No you must be in charge of the women,’ and offered to have me talk to the women of their village,” said Jung.
Another RCP platoon leader from Ouray, Colo., U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Casey Hinkson said the local men will sometimes try to talk to one of the males in the patrol first instead of the female platoon leader.
“If I am dismounted with my interpreter, sometimes they will try to talk to a male team member instead but we really haven’t had that many issues with locals not being willing to talk to me,” she said.
The women said their gender can come in handy too. The ability to be able to talk to the women of a village has been useful in certain situations.
“When we have to blow in place (improvised explosive devices or unexploded ordinances) on the route, and there are houses nearby, I would take the interpreter and let the people know there is going to be an explosion. A lot of times there are just women at home, so they are a little nervous when they come to the door. But the interpreter tells them that I am a female, and it is OK for them to come and talk to me,” said Clark.
Being female also allows the platoon leaders to hear Afghan Women’s concerns.
“I think that a lot of the local females assume that we are all male, so I make an extra effort to speak to the local women.”
There have also been some awkward situations when dealing with the Afghan National Security Forces.
“When I was down at a combat outpost in our area of operations, I was invited to a luncheon and the local National Directorate of Security wanted to give me a burka as a present,” said Clark. “I didn’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing.”
Within the platoon, Jung said females are considered both equal and vital parts of the units.
“Being a female in a combat zone is no different. The male Soldiers treat us the same as everyone else. We are not special, and we are included as indispensable parts of the team.”
Hinkson agreed. “The fact that we are doing the job that we are doing now proves that there is no reason to keep females separate from combat units. Even if it doesn’t say that we are a sapper platoon, by doing route clearance we are still doing the same job, whether or not we have the title,” said Hinkson.
U.S. Army Capt. Wade Smith, 535th ESC commander from Brewster, N.Y., said he is proud of the work his platoon leaders have done.
“Their performance speaks for itself. Their subordinates look to them for guidance and leadership regardless of their gender and they have always accomplished their missions as professionals,” said Smith. “I am very proud of the way they have handled this mission, but in no way surprised at their results.”
Article by Combined Joint Task Force 1 - Afghanistan