Female officers train Iraqi soldiers

CAMP UR, Iraq -- Maj. Michelle Stringer (left) and 1st Lt. Sarah Parris train Iraqi troops at this austere camp. Both are deployed here from the 78th Security Forces Squadron, Robins Air Force Base, Ga. (U.S. Air Force photo)

CAMP UR, Iraq -- Maj. Michelle Stringer (left) and 1st Lt. Sarah Parris train Iraqi troops at this austere camp. Both are deployed here from the 78th Security Forces Squadron, Robins Air Force Base, Ga. (U.S. Air Force photo)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFPN) -- In a culture where women traditionally stay home and men take care of business, two female officers from here found that some customs are changing.

The two women, from Robins’ 78th Security Forces Squadron, are part of an Air Force military training team helping train Iraqi noncommissioned officers.

Maj. Michelle Stringer and 1st Lt. Sarah Parris work at Camp Ur, about 180 southeast of Baghdad. The camp, which is just more than a year old, has a name straight out of antiquity. Ur is the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham. Its ziggurat, or temple tower, is among the country’s best preserved.

The contrast of the old and the new is not lost on the two officers. Neither is their role as instructors.

"It's very interesting," said Major Stringer, who is from Woodbridge, Va. "In spite of the departure from the roles of women in their culture, the Iraqis seem eager to listen and learn.”

Still, the major said she is very conscious of how Iraqi men regard women, especially when it is time to make decisions. She's careful not to forget traditions.

“I always have a male sergeant major 'make' the decision because I don't want the soldiers to suffer any backlash or shame because they took orders from a woman -- or worse -- were corrected by a woman," she said.

While making sure not to offend, the women still have an important mission to accomplish. Officially, they are in Iraq to train, coach, advise and mentor Iraqi soldiers. But in practice, they have become much more -- cheerleaders, morale boosters and troubleshooters.

"There were 700 of them and four of us," Major Stringer said. That makes for what she described as an "interesting and intensely challenging assignment." The 700 soldiers from the first two groups they trained are now operational.

“Out there every day doing the mission,” she said.

Life at Camp Ur is austere, to say the least. The major, Lieutenant Parris and two male combat arms instructors from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, share a mobile home on a 5-acre compound. The camp also houses contractors and other Coalition forces.

"I'm loving life, living in a trailer," Major Stringer quipped on a day when the temperature at 9 a.m. reach 120 degrees in the shade.

"(This place) used to be a hole in the desert," the major said. "Before construction could start, they had to remove about 10,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance from the site. Even now, there are areas we're told not to enter because they haven't been cleared."

The women left Robins on Mother's Day, and first went at Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, for training. They went through the Phoenix Academy in Tadji, Iraq, where they first met the Iraqis. They went through more training at Camp Victory in Baghdad. They expect to serve 12 months in the country.

Camp Ur takes getting used to. The team’s compound within the camp is paved, but its sand and dirt surround it. Nearly every day in August, the major said, "hellacious" sandstorms blew in.

"You see the wind picking up," she said. "One minute you can see; the next minute you can't see your hand in front of your face."

The women said they miss the variety of food (back home). The food is good, but monotonous, the major said. There’s rice and chicken for lunch and dinner.

Lieutenant Parris, from Asheville, N.C., said, there is plenty to eat.

“We also have plenty of heat and work to keep us skinny,” she said. “We are both going to be lean, mean machines by the time this year is up."

The lieutenant also longs for the freedom to go out without having to put on 50 pounds of protective gear.

For entertainment, there's satellite television -- but very little time to watch it -- and a makeshift gym Major Stringer said was more of a "ratty tent" with a few weights. The compound has no phones, but does have the relatively new "PC to phone software" that bridges the gap from Internet to telephone circuits using a modem as a Web phone.

"The big thing for both of us is the realization that we have taken so much for granted," Major Stringer said. "Here, while the contractor takes very good care of us, we have little. We brush our teeth with bottled water, and the only place on the compound you find Western-style toilets are in the camp."

Occasionally, the women visit Ali Base -- about seven miles away -- to get their mail. And "every now and then," they eat in the base dining facility because "that's as close to home as we'll get," the major said.

But the women do not let the hardships of camp life make them lose sight of their mission. The major said they want to teach their Iraqi students about teamwork.

"We are trying to teach the Iraqis we are one team, one fight; that it's not us versus you. I think slowly but surely they're learning," she said.

Some of the trainees served in the military under the Saddam Hussein regime, where noncommissioned officers had little authority.

"We're showing them they can take charge -- they can make things happen," Major Stringer said.

But the major said the students don't think about tomorrow and the challenges it might bring. To overcome that, the instructors don't tell students how to solve problems.

“We give them a bunch of options and ask 'which would work best for you?' It's all part of getting them to think for themselves,” she said.

“Because in their old military, they couldn't make decisions,” she said. “Officers led; they followed."

While they might be making strides in training, introducing the concept of democracy -- and getting the Soldiers to make decisions -- has not been easy.

"This is unlike anything I have ever done before," Major Stringer said. “We're trying to introduce democracy here, and that will require the ability to make decisions."

To help the students make the transition from followers to leaders, the instructors must be sensitive to ordeals the students had to go through. They already know what they are supposed to do, the major said.

"These guys are pumped," Major Stringer said. "They're excited -- ready to get to work. We give them a speech telling them how important their job is. In a sense, we stroke their egos and work on keeping them interested in the work.”

To help bridge the language and culture gap, the women study Arabic each day. While they have an interpreter, they open each day's session in Arabic. Then, at the end of each day, they ask their Soldiers to give them a new word. With an interpreter's help, they establish the word's English equivalent. They write the Arabic word on a notepad and come to class the next day prepared to use the word. The exercise has helped the two to form a bond with the Iraqi soldiers.

"We might be a novelty to them, but we still get treated like they treat the two male members of the team," the major said.

Lieutenant Parris agreed.

"Their culture views women as subservient,” the lieutenant said. She said that definitely goes against the two instructors’ personalities. “But we did have a pleasant surprise -- most of the Soldiers we work with don't have a problem taking directions from a woman."

Major Stringer said they are careful not to overlook Iraqi traditions.

They have learned not to be the first to extend hands for a handshake and not to be the first to speak. At meetings, Major Stringer waits for the men to make the first moves. One other cultural change to which the women had to adapt is lack of personal space.

"As Americans, we like our space when we talk to people," she said. "The Iraqis are used to being right in your face.”

That made the women uncomfortable, at first. But they adapted.

“We both understand they are crowding around us because they are interested in what 'the ladies' have to say," she said.


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