A woman among men in Afghanistan

STRONG POINT DOG, Zhari — At austere combat outposts, they don’t have dining facilities or showers or bathrooms -- or women.

When I arrive, I’m completely out of place. And quarters are close.

Getting the tour of one strong point last week (which basically consisted of standing in one spot and turning around 360 degrees) the staff sergeant stopped at the tents after pointing out where a male dog handler would sleep. He turned to me and smiled, shoulders shrugged. “Not sure what we’re going to do with you,” he said. “We don’t have any women here.”

That’s the story at most of the combat outposts, though the soldiers do their best to accommodate a woman in their midst after months of untamed male behavior.

Today when I showed up at another combat outpost set up in an Afghan compound consisting of mud huts, the company commander wanted to first lay out how the living situation would work for me. The captain assured me that although they only have a hole in the ground as a bathroom, the soldiers have “a whole battle drill for when you need to go, so you have your privacy.”

At the larger FOBs, I don’t think about being a woman among mostly men. There are enough others around that despite knowing I stand out, I feel like I have a space where I belong (mainly, a female-only tent).

It was much the same in Iraq. There my presence was often known within hours of my arrival — soldiers I hadn’t met yet calling out “Hey, Megan!” — but otherwise it wasn’t something I was concerned about.

Mostly when I head out to a war zone, I just don’t want to be the clueless reporter who shows up with unwieldy, heavy bags that scream high maintenance. (But I will admit that I especially don’t want to be the GIRL reporter who does. I bite down a smile whenever a soldier hands me my bag and remarks on how light it is.)

As a female journalist covering the military, being the lone woman is not a new situation. In Haiti after the earthquake, I spent a week camped out at the Port au Prince hospital with a company of 82nd Airborne soldiers. We all arrived together: flew into the city on a helicopter, landed on the lawn of the crumbled presidential palace and hiked over to the capital’s main hospital.

Everyone slept grouped together outside one of the hospital’s empty buildings. The situation didn’t even cross my mind as unusual until we joined up with the battalion, and I was directed away from the guys to the other side of camp where the handful of women slept.

Here, I’m coming into living situations already set up, staked out territory. At the first strong point I stayed at, when I walked into a tent, the soldiers looked up startled to see a woman and the conversation and laughter came to a screeching halt. They just kind of stared.

But a few seconds later they snapped back and made room for me. With all the spots lining the sides of the tent taken, I ended up sleeping on a cot smack in the middle. Where I am now, I’m staying in one of the rooms with about seven men. It’s always a little awkward walking in. I don’t want to catch a soldier used to only having men around in some state of undress.

As for me, after a couple of weeks here, I am a master at changing in my sleeping bag.



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