ABDUL GHAYAS, Afghanistan — Two young female Marines trudged along with an infantry patrol in the 102-degree heat, soaked through their camouflage uniforms under 60 pounds of gear. But only when they reached this speck of a village in the Taliban heartland on a recent afternoon did their hard work begin.
For two hours inside a mud-walled compound, the Marines, Cpl. Diana Amaya, 23, and Cpl. Lisa Gardner, 28, set aside their rifles and body armor and tried to connect with four nervous Afghan women wearing veils.
Three months ago, Amaya was one of 40 female Marines training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in an edgy experiment: sending full-time "female engagement teams" to accompany all-male foot patrols in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan to win over the Afghan women who are culturally off limits to American men.
Now, just weeks into a seven-month deployment that has sent them in twos and threes to 16 outposts across Helmand, including Marjah and other spots where fighting continues, the women have met with inevitable hurdles — not only posed by Afghan women but also by some male Marines and American commanders skeptical about the teams' purpose.
No one disagrees that the teams have potential and that female Marines are desperately needed, especially at medical clinics, as part of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's counterinsurgency campaign. As his officers say, you can't swing the population to your side if you talk to only half of it. But interviews and foot patrols with Marines during two recent weeks in Helmand show that the teams, which have had gained access to some of the most isolated women in the world, remain a work in progress.
Villagers are often stunned, if not disbelieving, to see women underneath the body armor.
Other cultural gaps exist among the Marines themselves. Along with their male counterparts, the female Marines live on rugged bases, often without showers, bathe with bottled water or baby wipes, use makeshift latrines and sleep in hot tents or outside in the dirt.
But what do all the visits and talk add up to? Master Sgt. Julia Watson, who helped create an earlier version of the female engagement teams in Iraq and has been working in Helmand, said that the women had to move beyond handing out teddy bears and medicine and use what they learn from Afghan women to develop plans for income-generating projects, schools and clinics. "You have to have an end state," she said.
Capt. Jason C. Brezler, a commander who has worked with the female Marines in the village of Now Zad, agreed. "To leverage a relationship, you have to have something of value to the Afghans," he said. "And it has to be more than just, 'I'm a girl.' "