Not Your Average Joe

By: Emily Haggstrom Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration not-average-joe

The face and culture of women involved in military combat has changed drastically over its 4000 year history. Change has not appeared more drastic since the conflicts that ensued following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. For the first time in United States history, women are not just being used in military support roles, but they are becoming high-ranking commanders facing real combat.

And although there is still a mountainous debate being waged over the concerns and advantages women play in war-time initiatives, it is certain that the tactical decisions made up-front and behind the scenes to include women in crucial jobs are paying off for the U.S. military.

On the torrid terrains of Iraq and in the varied climates of Afghanistan, this ever changing nine year battle against terror continues to evolve as insurgents move in and out of the local populations. Shopkeepers and suicide bombers walk side by side in the streets, and fathers and warmongers are one in the same. The front lines aren’t the trenches from the wars of the past; they are bombs and sieges on roadside checkpoints and in cafes. The enemy isn’t a well run collective group supported fancily through government monies, they are simple yet independent militias seeking whatever funds they can secure. Corruption and coercion have become woven into the fabrics of these societies’ war strategies.

Every day the war strategy is different and each side knows it must be creative to win, especially when the enemy thinks and acts radically different. No military role is safe from these terrorists. Therefore, placing women in gender-based roles no longer illustrates a point.

New approaches and more volunteers are always needed. Spots that were once being given mostly to U.S. males are becoming increasingly harder to fill. By utilizing the women who are applying to fill these same spots, the military can tap into resources that could add to the number of people in combat operations. Now, of the two million active soldiers fighting for American freedom, more than 209,000 of them are women.

A Woman’s Worth

In Nangarhar, one of Afghanistan’s more modern cities on the eastern border with Pakistan, fighting a quiet but lethal insurgency, is Lieutenant Colonel Jody Nelson. She is the commanding officer of an 853 soldier Special Troops Battalion securing the region through education and workforce development. “We all choose to serve our country for very personal reasons, but the duty our country asks us to do can be surprising,” said Nelson. “The young men and women of our country are not shooting insurgents, though they may have to at times.” Instead, they are teaching governance to emerging democracies, talking to village elders about corruption, talking about regenerating revenue and empowering the people.” Nelson and her battalion are trying to make a tangible difference to the 1.5 million people in the area where they operate.

Guided by centuries of female oppression, the Islamic front has shown that they are not intimidated and are unwilling to surrender to women. Not only is Nelson a woman but she is a woman in an Islamic Republic heavily fortified by subjugating Taliban factions. Each day poses a new challenge that Nelson will ultimately have to lead her troops through. And whether she is being scrutinized by male Islamists or by American men and women who do not believe she should be there, Nelson does not cave to the stereotype. “The barrier about women’s ability to do their job still exists,” said Nelson.

In her 24 years of military experience she has chosen to ignore the barriers which she refers to as “challenges” by continuously performing the duties assigned to her at an exceptional level and in the most professional manner possible. “I don’t dwell on what I wasn’t allowed to do or couldn’t do. I focus on what I can do and do it in the best possible way. By focusing only on the challenges you lose sight of what you can do well,” she said. Nelson is confident that by concentrating on her work and being professional she can prove to her male counterparts and fellow citizens just how valuable women can be. And women just like Nelson consistently perform at high levels proving their ability to some of the most war hardened generals.

But don’t mistake Nelson’s hard work as a cry for praise. She believes that women shouldn’t be singled out for their accomplishments just because they are women. She hopes that women will be recognized for their performance and contributions as a whole, for the traits they bring to the fight, their insight and their strengths. “The underlying accomplishments that should be recognized are the fact that women have served honorably and successfully in the U.S. military for many years and have integrated in combat zones without issue,” she says.

And although the presence of women in prior wars seemed unnecessary and detrimental by some critics; attitudes have shifted as people gain a better understanding of the enemy we are fighting. Because segmented areas of Afghanistan live under the thumb of the Taliban, people in these areas still lack many of their freedoms and their human rights continue to be squandered. Most women in these regions have not experienced any effects of the regime change and are still not allowed out of their homes, to hold jobs, or to attend schools. Having women on the front lines to perform woman-on-woman searches, in the home and in segregated mosques through targeted raids and patrols have proven vital and extremely strategic for allied forces. Nelson has found that, “The women here are so awed by what we do and feel we Army women have done so much for them. They challenge me to do the best I can and live up to the perception that the world has of American soldiers - high moral standards and courage.”

While there are aspects of the Afghan culture with which I am vehemently opposed, I cannot shout women's liberation and burn burkas. It would widen the gap. The men of our culture must work with the men of this culture supporting our message. - Jody Nelson

Nelson and other female troops may not be able to change attitudes in a culture that already does not respect women, but men in her battalion can. “While there are aspects of the Afghan culture with which I am vehemently opposed, I cannot shout women’s liberation and burn burkas. It would widen the gap. The men of our culture must work with the men of this culture supporting our message,” she said. By recognizing and working with women in these war zones, it can help to illustrate that men and women can, and do work together professionally without violating social norms that exist.

Military women have the unique opportunity to interview Afghani women, meet and become informed about their lives, concerns, and the future of their families, and how the U.S. military can stimulate growth to improve their quality of life. Through her interpreter, Nelson has discovered the need for work within the home to keep the family financially stable. By supporting their economic future, Nelson knows these women and their families can sustain without the need for opium farming or joining the Taliban. To help alleviate some of the financial strain these families have, Nelson introduced the Afghan women of her province to a carpet training facility where they are trained to weave carpets to sell in the local shops and markets.

These same women have also been recruited to serve as security detail for events where other women are present. “They want to serve their country and each serves an important role. They need to see other successful women that are serving as a role model for them and to show them that women can serve side by side,” said Nelson.

Within this multi-faceted war are also the local men who have joined the U.S. military as civilian police and Afghan military because of the love they have for their country. They are bound and determined to serve and protect with their guests and mentors, the U.S. military, on any front and in any location. As they stand side by side with our troops most of these Afghans wear sandals with their dingy uniforms. They are ill-equipped and lack the basic necessities, yet still continue to fight the same battles that our troops do. They are the pride of their families and towns and the future of Afghanistan. It is imperative that they are not only trained but suited properly to be sustainable.

Therefore it is Nelson and her battalion’s job within their assigned province to make sure these men have basic resources such as flashlights, t-shirts, socks and blankets. They also need to be trained in proper combat operations and be emotionally stable to withstand the enemy’s psychological attacks. Nelson has found that by working with these men and helping them to conquer feelings of being overwhelmed, intimidated or inferior to the opposition, that they can gain huge respect within their community for their ability to perform and keep their villages safe. “I am honored and humbled by their ability to fight the enemy as well as they do,” she said.

Nelson, like other commanders, works hard to secure the safety of not only Afghan’s but Americans as well. She does it not as a woman, but as a leader who supports freedom. She is the face that is changing the war.

Emily Haggstrom has a B.A. in Journalism and Media from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is a member of the Level One Society in Denver, Colorado and sits in on various charity committees. In an effort to impact her local community she also volunteers for Whiz Kids Tutoring, Inc. as well as Denver Health Medical Center.