Leading from the front

In the midst of a war-torn country, Army officer Elizabeth Trobaugh found a way to put her Mills values into action: helping provide access to education and resources to build better lives for the women of Afghanistan.

No comments
By Elizabeth Trobaugh ’10

On the day I graduated from Mills, with a BA in international relations, I was commissioned as an active duty officer in the United States Army. It was almost an accidental career—I had exhausted my financial aid and got a full scholarship under ROTC at Berkeley. To stay at Mills, I did what I had to do. I never imagined that my Mills education and an Army career could complement each other so harmoniously.

Seven months into my service career, I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, working as a postal platoon leader—not exactly the foreign relations career I’d envisioned for myself. But then I heard about Female Engagement Teams (FETs), all-female soldier teams that allow combat arms units on the front lines to reach out to local female populations in cultures that restrict communication between men and women.

The Army in many ways tells you what to do, where to live, and who you work for. This was my chance to get into a job that could meet the Army’s needs and let me do something I am passionate about. I was determined to get on one of those teams.

At Mills, I had grown immensely as an individual and strengthened my roots as a feminist; I met all types of women from all types of backgrounds. My classes educated me about what is happening to women in the international arena. Most importantly, I learned what it means to be a world citizen and realized the unwavering duty I have to be a force for good for all women.

I was selected for the position and joined 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in November 2011. I quickly learned that life in the 82nd is not for the faint of heart. We work long hours, we are incredibly physically fit, we swear a lot. The unit stands ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 18 hours. At the same time, I began FET training and, in March, we deployed to eastern Afghanistan.

After working out a business plan, the women who formed a sewing co-op meet to accept sewing machines provided by the Army. Above, Trobaugh invites a young Afghan woman and her children to medical education classes.

Our base was in the high desert, at an altitude of about 6,700 feet. The terrain was flat, broken by isolated peaks. There were spatterings of qa’lats all over the place—little compounds that make up villages. The bigger villages had bazaars, rows of shops built of earth and straw with food and goods laid out. Plenty of kids were running around, with no shoes and tattered clothing. They’d ask for candy and pens; if you brought any of that out they would swarm. If you were lucky, you would see a woman in a blue burka bob by.

The land was devoid of nutrients essential to farming, though some people were making a valiant attempt. There were vineyards, with the soil shoveled out between high berms. The low parts between rows were five feet down or so, providing good concealment while on foot patrol. There was dust, sun, and more dust. A small tree-lined creek ran through our base. I remember seeing a flower for the first time in months and being amazed at its beauty.

The Forces Command Guidance is that all units will deploy with a FET, but this directive has only been in effect since August 2011 and most unit commanders have little experience employing such teams. It was up to me and my second-in-charge on the FET to ensure that commanders, at all levels of my brigade, understood how our capabilities supported the overall mission. As liaison to local women, FETs leverage that half of the population to help provide social and economic stability. FETs build relationships to assess needs, passively gather information, conduct classes when possible, or secure needed resources. Most importantly, our team went out on patrols—to show, not tell, what we could do.

As FET officer in charge, I wrote the brigade FET mission for three front-line teams of seven women each. The team I led was attached to the 1-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, a previously all-male infantry battalion. I was the only female officer originally deployed with the battalion, and my FET included the only seven females in the battalion operating in combat arms companies rather than support units. (A change of policy announced by the Pentagon in January finally makes the presence of women on the front lines “official”—clearly, women have been active in FETs and other roles for some time.) My team could hold their own. We could keep up, we could fire back. And we brought back good information.

Elizabeth Trobaugh ’10 with the members of her Female Engagemeant Team.

Personal relationships are highly important in Afghan culture, and establishing trust with the local women is a primary component of FET training. But security comes first and our goal was always to support to the mission of our commander. However, my FET team went a step further. With help from contracted social scientists, we compiled three significant questions to ask Afghan women: What are your security concerns? Do you know your government officials? What is the biggest problem facing your village? Women see everything that happens so, as data started coming in, we were able to supply our commander with a more accurate picture of what was going wrong in the villages and successfully identify sources of instability.

We faced challenges from many sides: first and foremost, it wasn’t always easy to get a chance to speak with Afghan women. On our daily patrols, my team made an effort to reach out. We asked children, “Where is your mother?” or asked men, “May I speak to your wife?” The women were very afraid of our guns—and sometimes would question if we were really female. When out on patrol, in full body armor, we wore scarves wrapped loosely around our necks so they could see we were women. If we were in a house for any length of time, we took the helmet off and the scarf went on.

Although FET training included some rudimentary language lessons, we depended on interpreters in the field—but usually had only male translators available. Afghan men did not want us talking to their wives with another man in the room; if they did let us speak, the men would stay. With a male relative in the room, we would get one set of answers from the women; if the man left, wives sometimes gave us very different opinions about their concerns. On the rare occasions when we did manage to get a female interpreter, the eldest woman in the room often spoke for everyone—but at least there was more freedom.

We were able to build a collaborative working relationship with local government officials, conveying problems from the women’s perspective and helping the Afghan district governors try to use their own systems to solve these issues. When the local government required additional assistance, I worked with the American government, the State Department, USAID, and NGOs to bridge the gap. Based on the women’s stated desire for employment, we began to gain approval for projects such as getting them permission to work in the bazaar.

Government officials supported this effort, but we also learned that women’s greatest concern was security; therefore, putting women in a storefront was not the most effective solution. (Lack of access to health care was another complaint on the sources of instability; some of these women had barely traveled outside their qa’lat walls, let alone seen a clinic.) Eventually, we learned of a group of women who were ready to start their own business, but lacked the means to do so. We were able to respond by providing them with sewing machines to begin a sewing co-op—achieving successes for both the Afghan women and the community at large.

We also discovered that this particular group of women was running the only girls’ school in the region. On the day we presented the sewing machines, a young woman sat down next to me. Though she spoke Pashto and communicated with me through an interpreter, I could sense her passion and urgency as she asked, “Can you help me get to college? I have taken my exams; many of us have. We are ready to go.” I began to cry. This young woman was determined to achieve more for herself.

An early meeting of the sewing co-op group. With resources and support from the FET, more than 100 Afghan women signed up to participate in the business venture.

I was deeply moved by the courage of these remarkable women. Many of them face great personal risk in approaching Americans; women who seek education or those who resist the Taliban can be harmed or killed. These women are among the most marginalized people in the world—caught in the crossfire, they are seeking better, safer lives for themselves and their families. I reflected on how blessed I was to attend an institution like Mills and on the investment that so many people have made in my own life. I told this woman I would do everything I could to help her and others like her.

With only 30 days left in country, I approached my battalion commander about helping women attend college. I argued that educated Afghan women would educate their children, who would educate their grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, thus disrupting future generations’ propensity toward insurgency. His crushing response, however, was that we weren’t there to solve the feminist issues of Afghanistan. I was sorely disappointed but, as a professional soldier, it was my duty to place the mission first. I had to say “yes, sir,” and do as he ordered—but I was determined, somehow, to make good on my promise.

I passed my information on to the State Department and to my contacts in Kabul. Not long afterward, some influential American advisors came to our base. My commander asked their opinion on the topic of women attending college. The advisors spoke just as passionately as I had, but better articulated how educating women was an important message to the community. In the next meeting, my battalion commander said getting one or more of the women to college would be my final project before leaving the country.

Throughout the tumultuous month, I researched the requirements for women to attend college in Afghanistan. On one hand, Afghanistan’s higher education system is entirely funded by the government. If students score high enough on their entrance exams and can physically get to the schools, they can attend. However, many of the women we were working with had not scored high enough on the test and, unsatisfied with this outcome, needed to retake the exam. In addition, the local rural universities lacked the resources to provide the “life support” needed to sustain women students—they were simply unable to house women separately or give them their own dining facilities. Only the larger universities in Kabul or Herat offered such capacity and, for most women in our group, traveling that distance was not possible.

1-504 FET with the local District government and the 503d FET.

Our team also found that the English-language requirements of programs offered in Afghanistan by foreign organizations were another obstacle. Our women barely got basics; achieving a second language, while not impossible, was not on the priority list. In the end, the most viable option was the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women business education program, run by American University of Afghanistan in Kabul in partnership with Thunderbird Global School of Management. (It’s a small world; Mills is also a partner in the 10,000 Women program.) This six-week training program even pays for transportation to and from the women’s homes. We were able to get the leader of the co-op enrolled; the young woman who asked me about college, and many more like her, also wanted in.

I don’t know how this story ends. It is still unfolding. Our team paved the road for the incoming FET. We set down guidelines and a system to aid the community, but I won’t see the fruits of my team’s labor in Afghanistan. I have no idea if the young woman who spoke up made it to the business training program or if more women got signed up.

My team completed their tour in September and I returned to the US, where I am now filling a staunch 9-5 position at Fort Bragg. It is something I can do while I recover from the last year. I poured everything I had into the FET, and it gave very little back. My team, while I love them, was not easy on me. Not to mention, there was always the added threat of someone trying to kill you while doing that job. That takes a tremendous toll. I was almost hit on several occasions—no joke: a foot to the left, I’d be going home in a box. Despite these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, I still felt driven to do as much as possible under the circumstances, even without any guarantee of what the final results might be.

I don’t know how my own story ends, either. I may continue on to pursue a graduate degree in international relations. Or I may stay in the Army after my current contract is complete—but I am grateful to have so many options. While the frequent violence during my time as a soldier in Afghanistan forced me to hold my emotions at bay, the job also showed me the necessity of investing in human capital. I hope my work, in some small way, will help provide the women of that country with greater choices for their own freedom and self-determination.