News: Stryker Brigade females strive for spot on Female Engagement Team
Story by Spc. Kimberly Lessmeister
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – Being one of the only females in a male-dominated combat environment isn’t for everyone, but it can be the key to reaching an entire segment of the Afghan population, unlocking the valuable insight of all they see, hear and know.
Female Engagement Teams in the Marines and Army have been a vital part of forming closer bonds to local women while deployed to Afghanistan. They conduct community engagements, provide low-level medical care to locals and help conduct searches in a culture where a male soldier performing a pat-down of an Afghan female is taboo.
Forty-one soldiers from 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division “Raiders” pushed through a three-day assessment and selection process March 12-14 here in hopes of being part of the brigade’s first FET.
The soldiers selected will be attached to the brigade's 45th Military Intelligence Company, where, for the first time in a Stryker brigade here, they will all be assigned fulltime duty within the FET, according to 4th SBCT FET’s officer-in-charge, 1st Lt. Ashley Nicolas.
The Raider Brigade is the third Stryker unit here to assemble a FET. The first team belongs to 4th SBCT’s sister brigade, 3rd SBCT, currently serving in Afghanistan.
Nicholas, along with other female officers in the brigade including Capt. Heather McClellan, spearheaded the creation of the team in accordance with guidelines set by the Center for Army Lessons Learned.
McClellan said there were specific characteristics the candidates needed to make the team.
“The most important qualities we are evaluating are their teamwork performance during mentally and physically stressful conditions as well as their motivation, leadership potential and desire to be a part of the FET,” she explained via email.
Dr. Shannon Baird from the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness- Performance and Resilience Enhancement Team here provided the candidates with mental skills training and taught them how to work together as a team. She will continue working with the FET throughout the program.
After being divided into nine teams of about 3 to 4 people, the candidates began their first day of FET selection with an Army Physical Fitness Test, followed by an 8.6-mile ruck march and, later, 45 minutes of intense physical training in the rain and mud.
“The first day was all about physical activity and just pushing your body to the limit,” said Pfc. Blanca Zarate, a utilities equipment mechanic with Company B, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion, and the first to complete the ruck march with a time of 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 58 seconds. “I never knew my body could be pushed that far, and I did it.”
The second day stressed teamwork as the soldiers went through various lanes where they had to work together to accomplish tasks and solve puzzles. As an added challenge, some tasks had to be completed while wearing protective gas masks.
In a sudden downpour of snow, the teams used their land navigation skills to cross a training area and locate specific stations, where they had to accomplish tasks such as scooping “hazardous material” from a bucket to a safe area using only a rope, coffee can and zip ties.
For 1st Lt. Olivia Gransback, the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade assistant intelligence officer from Seoul, South Korea, completing the tasks was both physically and mentally exhausting, but still doable.
“It’s definitely very tough,” said Gransback, whose husband is in 4th SBCT. “Your mind’s going to give up before your body does, [but] you have to fight through whatever pain.”
On the final day of selection, candidates had to climb to uncomfortable heights and physically challenge themselves on eight different obstacles.
During one of the events, comparable to climbing an oversized, wooden ladder, Zarate clung to one of the rungs near the top, frozen by her fear of heights. With encouragement from her team, however, she was able to overcome it.
“I did it because everyone believed in me,” said Zarate, an Apple Valley, Calif., native. “I’m not a quitter.”
At the end of the day, each candidate was individually called into a room at the 45th MICO where she was interviewed on-camera by McClellan and the company’s first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Daniel Poorte.
“We did [these interviews] to see what their level of interest was in the FET, ask how they would handle pressure, ask how they problem solved when faced with challenges, ascertain how they interacted with others and what kind of team players they were,” said McClellan. “This also helped give us some insight into their strengths, weaknesses and communication skills.”
McClellan and Poorte coupled the information from the interviews with the candidate’s performance over the three-day evaluation to determine who would be chosen.
While scaling extreme obstacles and on-camera interviews may not be an everyday event for a deployed FET, the Soldiers must be physically and mentally prepared to support the unit they will be augmenting.
Third Brigade’s FET non-commissioned officer-in-charge, Sgt. 1st Class Laurie Eggleston, said her team has done everything from accompanying infantry squads on patrol to attending women’s shuras.
“The teams have had the opportunity to develop their own missions, as well as coordinate with other elements in utilizing the teams as enablers,” she explained in an email.
Eggleston said she believes her brigade’s FET has received positive responses from the Afghan population throughout the areas in which her unit operates.
“I think seeing our FET out there gives Afghan women hope that change is coming,” she said. “They definitely want the freedom American women enjoy.”
Nearly four months into their deployment, Eggleston and her team have figured out how best to utilize their assets and hope their fellow Stryker brigades will follow their lead.
She recommends that prospective members of 4th SBCT’s FET learn everything they can about Afghanistan.
“That knowledge will help them know better how to help the people of that area and to show [the Afghans] how to help themselves,” Eggleston said.
Gransback understands how important cultural awareness is to achieving any sort of success should she deploy.
“We have to go out there [and] learn their culture,” she said. “Only when we do that can we start making a difference.”
After the grueling selection process, Gransback and the other 36 soldiers chosen to be part of the FET will continue training for approximately 10 weeks until the brigade’s upcoming rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where they will be evaluated on their effectiveness as a team.