Women help bridge Afghan divide
TAMPA — For Air Force Lt. Col. Sarah Cleveland, reaching out to Afghan women sometimes meant 10-day trips to remote villages. It meant eating the local delicacy of fried sheep rump fat and letting women and girls paint her face with their traditional blue eyeliner.
But mostly it meant directing 17 teams of women fanned out across Afghanistan as the officer in charge of the first formal class of cultural support teams. The all-female groups of service members help Army special operations forces engage with women and girls in Afghan villages.
The experience working in remote villages was a far cry from her recent assignments for U.S. Special Operations Command. A 16-year veteran, Cleveland had spent two years traveling around the world, setting up secure communications systems for operators in the field, before she was assigned to the command's protocol office in 2010.
"I was like Private Benjamin," says Cleveland, 43. "I became a very good wedding planner. Those weddings were the commanders' conferences. All the commanders in (special operations forces) would descend on Socom every six to eight weeks, and they would brief on what's new and cool."
One of those new and cool topics was village stability operations. Troops, mostly special operations forces, spend time helping Afghan village elders create their own security and economic development so they can stand up on their own against insurgents.
The Socom commander at the time, now-retired Adm. Eric Olson, saw that troops were not reaching village women and created cultural support teams. The idea was that the teams would help break down barriers in places where women often are not allowed to interact with men who are not their family.
There already were women working with village stability operations units, mostly Army intelligence or civil affairs. And Socom already had set up a trial cultural support team. But hearing that the command was ramping up its outreach efforts to women, Cleveland jumped at the opportunity to apply and leave the comforts of Tampa for a more spartan life.
On May 1, 2011, the day before Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, Cleveland learned she had been accepted.
Training was the first cultural shock.
The only Air Force member in the group, she had to learn the Army way during the training at Fort Bragg.
"Part of the challenge for me was to acclimate to Army culture," she says. "I could run, but that was about it. I had to get used to carrying 35 pounds and a rifle."
In addition to physical training, Cleveland and the other women underwent cultural training, including role-playing exercises. "We would go into a home and instructors would pretend to be an Afghan family. We would work with the interpreters and interact with the families."
She and her teams arrived in Afghanistan in August and returned to the United States in February.
As the highest-ranking member of the team, Cleveland was assigned to Bagram Airfield, where she was responsible for managing the teams, providing equipment, offering operational advice and moral support.
She traveled to about half of the 17 sites, locations she will not name for security reasons.
"It was really interesting," she says. "On the couple of missions I went out on, the women are like rock stars. The children come out, and once they figure out you are a girl, they throw candy at you instead of the other way around."
Cleveland says that on one visit, as part of an effort to smooth the way to speak to the women, she and other troops sat down for a lunch with village elders.
They served a dish called jeljeq, fat from a sheep's hindquarters cut up and fried.
After prodding by the host, Cleveland says, she "stabbed it, ate it and said mmmm, good."
"I was sicker than a dog that night," she says. "But so was everyone else."
The sacrifice paid off, she says.
"After that meal, we were able to go back in the women's quarters."
Afghans, says Cleveland, value families. That's why so much effort is being poured into reaching the women.
The mission of the cultural support teams, says Cleveland, is to "invest the entire family" in the efforts of the village stability operations.
As the U.S. military works with the Afghan men to create an Afghan police force, the cultural support teams help the women understand why that is important. They also create what essentially is a "family readiness group" akin to organizations that help American military families cope with the rigors of service.
"It's been hard to get the men to stay with the Afghan Local Police," Cleveland said. "All of a sudden, Grandma, Mom and the kids have this support group developed by the cultural support teams."
Another benefit, says Cleveland, are the creation of reading and writing groups for the entire family. She says that although estimates show the literacy rate is about 40 percent in Afghanistan, "that has to be for the males. Very few women know how to read."
Though Cleveland had "limited hands-on experience" with the cultural support team missions, she did have the experience of talking to a 14-year-old boy about to marry an 11-year-old girl from a different village.
It was an arranged marriage, she said, "but they don't cohabitate until the boy is 17 or 18 and the girl is probably 15," Cleveland said.
Cleveland says that the cultural support teams aren't in Afghanistan to "change their ways as much as show them the possibilities."
She says she asked the 14-year-old boy what he wanted to do when he grew up. He said he wanted to be an engineer and go to school in Kabul.
Would you take your wife? Cleveland asked.
" 'Yes,' " the boy answered. " 'I want her to be educated. I want her to learn to read.' "
That, says Cleveland, is a sign that the younger generation in Afghanistan is changing.
Cleveland says that for the most part, the women on the CSTs are well-received by Afghan women and children, who like to spend time adoring head scarves they wear and paint their faces with blue eyeliner called "kohl."
But this is still war, and there are still dangers.
Cleveland won't talk about that, but on her left wrist is a constant reminder.
It's a black rubber memorial bracelet in honor of Ashley White. White, a 24-year-old Army first lieutenant and cultural support team member, was killed Oct. 22 along with two Army Rangers by an improvised explosive device near Kandahar Province.