Marine helps develop Female Engagement Team in Afghanistan
By ALLISON M. ROBERTS | Danville Register & Bee, Va. | Published: May 19, 2013
Sara Bryant knew going into the military was something she wanted to do, but what she did not know was the impact she would have on the role of females in the Marine Corps.
Bryant enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2005. She said her grandfather — a master gunsmith in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army — was her role model growing up. During her high school years, Bryant said she was “kind of a wild kid” and lacked discipline and responsibility.
She knew college was not for her and talked to Army recruiters for a while, but ultimately decided on the Marines.
“I remember walking by the Marine Corps recruiting office and I just knew if I was going to do it, it was go big or go home, I guess,” Bryant said. “I decided the Marine Corps was for me.”
Bryant graduated from Tunstall High School in 2005 and enlisted with a girl from her graduating class. A lot of her friends were going to Iraq, she said, and she told the recruiter she did not want a desk job. She wanted to go to Iraq also.
“I’ll never forget 9/11 — I don’t think any of us will,” Bryant said. “I knew I wanted to go to Iraq. I remember telling the recruiters I wanted to go and didn’t want a desk job.”
While she was stationed at 29 Palms in California, Bryant heard about the Lioness Program started by the Army in 2003. The program was the first of its kind in that it sent female soldiers directly into ground combat.
With infantrymen, Bryant said, their job is to kick down doors and clear a situation. In dealing with women, however, they knew there was a sensitivity issue that was being ignored. The Army started the program because it knew female soldiers had to be sent out to deal with female suicide bombers.
After she learned about the program, Bryant said she was obsessed with the idea. She remembered seeing an article about the Marines starting a similar program. Bryant told everyone in her chain of command she wanted to go into Iraq and start a Lioness program.
“I remember telling people I wanted to do this, and they just laughed,” Bryant said. “Everyone had the mentality of ‘girls don’t do that,’ but I wanted to do this. The way I saw it, when I joined, I wanted to be out there, and I wanted to do something and be a part of the mission.”
Bryant was in Fallujah for two days before learning a memo was sent out asking females to go to Iraq.
She got her chance when she checked in with the RCT 5 — Fifth Marines —training out of Al Asad Airbase in Iraq. Being in Iraq changed her, Bryant said. Being in the village, seeing what the infantry does and how hard they work caused her to be “bitten by the bug,” she said.
“I wanted to do everything, and I had to be in the middle of it,” Bryant said. “I loved it, and I just wanted more of that.”
It was an uphill battle until people saw what Bryant was doing worked, she said. Policies had to be changed regarding how soldiers dealt with Iraqi women. No one wanted to detain them, but Iraqi women would shoot at American soldiers just like male Iraqis would, Bryant said.
After Bryant came home from Iraq, she helped re-write the training program and emphasized the need for more than the five-day training she received before deployment. She was undecided about extending her contract but knew she wanted to go to Afghanistan as well.
A combination of things made Bryant’s decision to extend her contract. She received an email about an incident in the Southern Helmand Province. The Marines were taking over the province and surrounding a compound known to be inhabited by the Taliban. The Marine commander made the decision to let the women and children go before rushing the compound.
When troops got inside the compound, Bryant said no one was in there. The Taliban had put on berkas — head wraps and coverings women wear to shield their faces — and snuck out with the women and children.
“That made my chest hurt,” Bryant said. “I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have that program in Afghanistan, but we hadn’t focused all of our attention on Afghanistan yet. It really bothered me. I lost sleep over it because I was so vested in that program in Iraq.”
Bryant’s battalion commander told her to write a proposal to get a Lioness program in Afghanistan, and she would pass it along to the Marine Expeditionary Force commander. Bryant was in Danville because her grandfather was sick and received the call the program had been approved.
After she received the call and her grandfather died, she decided to extend her contract and volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan and start the first full-time Female Engagement Team training program.
The program was made up of 32 women who trained vigorously for the challenges they were going to face. Bryant said she took all of the things from the Lioness program in Iraq that needed to be improved and used that as a starting board.
Women in the program went through seven months of training, including range and language, Bryant said. She said some of the infantrymen in Afghanistan joked with her about receiving more training than they did.
Bryant and the Female Engagement Team deployed to Afghanistan in March 2010. They moved into the Kandahar region, which was largely populated with Taliban. During their time there, the Female Engagement Team worked with district governors and getting schools established and making sure locals had water.
When they arrived in Kandahar, Bryant said the ground was laden with improvised explosive devices. The Female Engagement Team had established such good relationships with the local people, she had people would tell her what areas to stay away from, where IEDs were located and drew her maps of where things were located.
“The thing I think we learned there was they didn’t see us as they saw the guys,” Bryant said. “We’re not the ones kicking down their doors. We want to know what’s going on. Where is that middle ground we can meet each other on so no one else has to die?”
Bryant received a USO Military Leadership Award for her role as team leader, her accomplishments during the course of the Female Engagement Team deployment and for the development and execution of the program itself. She also received a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Award from the 3rd Battalion Seventh Marines.
“I was the first female to get the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Award from them,” Bryant said. “That meant more to me than anything I could have gotten anywhere else in my Marine Corps experience. It meant that I did something, and I was proud of myself.”
After six-and-a-half years in the Marine Corps, Bryant now works for the Department of Defense. She said she misses the Marine life and would love to go back. She was approached by a T-shirt production company called 7.62 Military Designs about being the model for a modern take on World War II figure Rosie the Riveter.
The owner of the company did not want a model, Bryant said, but wanted a real veteran to do the shirt. She laughed as she talked about the times her friends have seen the shirts in stores and sent her pictures of her face on a shirt. She did not think it would be that popular, she said, but “people thought it was cool.”
“Through it all, obviously you sacrifice so much time away from your family, but I wanted to give my son something to look back on and leave that legacy for him,” Bryant said. “I think I’ve done that. I hope I have.”