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In War In Afghanistan, Missions Just For Women

MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, we're talking about one of the ways the war in Afghanistan is evolving and the special role an elite group of U.S. servicewomen are playing. The Army is now training an elite group of women soldiers and the occasional Air Force officer to build relationships with Afghan women. These teams are called Cultural Support Teams. They work alongside Special Forces and Ranger teams in the field. This is also the first time the Army has elected women for a mission specifically because of their gender.

In this week's Washington Post Magazine, Kevin Mauer wrote about the purpose of the unit and the tough selection process involved to be part of it. And Kevin Mauer joins us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KEVIN MAUER: Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Now, you're a veteran military correspondent. You've been covering the military for nearly a decade. What drew you to this story?

MAUER: Really, it was the women. I've done a lot of work with Special Operations Forces, but to actually see them selecting women and using some of the same criteria that they use to select the men, I thought that was a kind of a fascinating story, and, you know, the more you peal it back, the more you realize how important the mission is.

MARTIN: Do I have it right that this is the first time the Army has put together a women-only unit. Have other forces done that? Or is this the first time in the service altogether?

MAUER: The Marines have a similar unit. These Cultural Support Teams really started there and caught the attention of Admiral Olson, who at the time was in charge of Special Operations, you know, military-wide, and he tasked Special Operations to come up with these units. And the Army took it on and that's why you have CSTs now training at Fort Bragg.

MARTIN: And I do have to mention - the Army is the largest service, right, of course, of all of them, which is one reason it's significant.

KEVIN MAURER: That's right.

MARTIN: Now, tell me what the selection process involves, as briefly as you can, and what characteristics the Army was looking for in selecting people to serve in this group.

MAURER: Well, the selection process is similar to the same selection process that Special Forces goes through, as well as the psychological operations guys and the Civil Affairs soldiers. And essentially, what they're looking for is soldiers who are smart, can think on their feet and are tough, because if you think of a Special Operations team, they're going to work, you know, far from friendly lines. They're going to work deep in the villages and they're going to have to rely on themselves and their small team to come up and solve problems. So, essentially, they're looking for the smartest and the toughest to do these missions.

MARTIN: The officer who created the assessment called it 100 hours of hell. Did you agree?

MAURER: Yeah, it's tough. And it's not as tough, maybe, as - it's not as long, shall I say, as Special Forces selection or some of the other selections. But it's tough. It's demanding and it's the unknown that really gets to them.

MARTIN: You know, there was one exercise that you describe where the women were brought in to - what were they doing? Actually, I wasn't really clear what - they were negotiating or they were trying to sort of talk to this group of women and then a group of people, you know - is it all role playing? Bursts in and start pretending to slap the women and say that, you know, they've been disobedient, and why are they talking to them? So what was the purpose of that? It was a pretty intense scene.

MAURER: I was very intense. I watched it about nine times, I think, over and over again. And essentially, in that portion of the training, there's a few scenarios that the women go through, and in that particular scenario it's supposed to simulate them meeting with Afghan women and then having that meeting broken up by the husbands who were upset that the women are meeting outside of the home and talking about issues that way.

And, really, what they're testing is how well these women react. Do they just freeze up and stop and not do anything or do they somehow negotiate through it? And I focused, really, on a class who's an interrogator, so she wasn't too far out of her comfort zone. But some of the women, when they were faced with this - and it was jarring, even for me and I knew they were role players - just froze up, just stood there with big eyes.

So, I mean, what they were trying to decide is, you know, how are they going to think on their feet? There really was no right answer. It was really reaction and how you're going to do it.

MARTIN: And some of the women grabbed their AK-47s and said, step back.

MAURER: Yeah. And Marquez was tough.

MARTIN: She said, step back. You could see that the training over time coming out. Which raises my next question. But if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about American servicewomen training for these elite Cultural Support Teams in Afghanistan. Our guest is Kevin Maurer. He wrote about this for this week's Post Magazine.

So what is their mission? I mean, how do you - because your article raises the question of, could this really be a turning point? If these women are successful, along with the units they're working with, this could really be a turning point. In what way? What's the hope? What's the expectation?

MAURER: Well, one of the key strategies going on in Afghanistan right now, particularly with Special Forces, is this idea of village stability operations, of going into the villages and building a government and a nation from the ground up. And what they hope these CSTs can do, the Cultural Support Teams can do, is bridge the gap between American forces and coalition forces and women. Because that's just not a population that's easy to talk to in Afghanistan and they're important. Now, they're over 50 percent of the population there and it's a whole gap of rapport building that's necessary that they're just not getting to with all men.

MARTIN: Do they really think, though, that - I mean, because these women, at the end of the day, are still Americans and they're still soldiers, so can they really step outside of that identity? You know, they still have all their gear on. They're still, as we saw from the example where the woman moved to gain control of the situation very quickly, you know, using her weapon. I mean, she didn't discharge her weapon, but you see my point. Is there any evidence to show that this technique, that this idea is useful?

MAURER: There's some. I mean, I think you pointed out a very good point. I mean, it's hard for anybody to break out of the fact that we are not Afghans. We, as American citizens and soldiers, don't really understand Afghanistan as well as an Afghan. And I think it's going to be difficult. You know, it's almost a lot more difficult for the women, too, because of the different cultural problems.

But it's still a population that needs to be addressed. It's still a population that has issues that you need to find some way to connect with and this seems to be the best way to do it.

MARTIN: And Kevin, you know what I wanted to ask you? People often, in other fields, ask - does gender matter? Often, people have asked the question - does having a female boss matter? Do women manage differently? Are women politicians different or women jurists different? Did you observe any differences in the way these women, who are already, you know, pretty distinguished. Many of them, you know - did you observe any differences in how they kind of addressed the tasks and, you know, face this mission and each other?

MAURER: Yeah. I mean, I think it is true. You know, men and women are different. I don't think you can argue that and I think the way that they attack those problems and the way that - the camaraderie, I found, was very amazing. There's an understanding of the historical significance of what they're doing, but they completely bonded very quickly and it was very much a team effort. Even though it's an individual selection, they're looking for individual soldiers and how you do, not how your team does, but it was very important for the team to do well and they quickly bonded together.

And then, you know, they have a different sense of humor. I mean, I've spent a lot of time with soldiers in the United States and in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places, and the sense of humor for most male units is very much a locker room. And women have a different sense of humor and I got a chance to experience, you know, some of the jokes that they made and just the way that they see themselves and react. Body image was something that they joked about a lot, which I thought was kind of funny when you're, you know, covered in dirt trying to get over a wall, so...

MARTIN: So did they kind of let you in? Did they make you feel like one of the girls?

MAURER: Yeah. I did feel like one of the girls. They were really, really cool. They were really nice to let us go through it. Because, I mean, you've got to think that by the time I get to them on Thursday of this training, you know, they're worn out. They've been up at all hours. They're very tired and for them to be as nice enough to really show us what it means - and I think we captured that in the story - was nice and impressive and I commend them for it.

MARTIN: Kevin Maurer is a writer. His piece, "Wanted: Elite Women Soldiers for Afghanistan," appears in this week's Washington Post Magazine. It's the cover. He joined us from member station WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina. Kevin, thanks so much for joining us.

MAURER: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Just ahead, a video of a teenage girl involved in a sexual encounter went viral and that has sparked a debate online and off about who or what is to blame.

MALIKA SAADA SAAR: We have push-up bras for 10 year olds and thongs for seven year olds. There is a gathering culture that, without question, hyper-sexualizes very young girls.

MARTIN: Teens and sexuality in the age of YouTube. That conversation is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: The sputtering economy has left many college grads pleading for help with their student loans. The White House recently unveiled a new plan that it says will provide relief, but will it help people like Erica Woods Tucker?

ERICA WOODS TUCKER: I currently owe $40,000 in student loans. I'll probably be paying them into my 80s.

MARTIN: Reducing the burden of student loan debt. We'll talk about it next time on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.