Before their mission, female Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., learn about Afghan culture and language. On the eve of their departure, they say goodbye to their families. Mark Schapiro talks by Skype with journalist Mimi Wells on assignment for CIR in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

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TRANSCRIPT:

Mark Schapiro: Today, we’re talking with Mimi Wells, a journalist who is about to embark on an exciting new project with CIR in Afghanistan. Mimi, can you tell us what it is you’re going to be doing?

Mimi Wells: I’m headed to Kunar province to embed with a group of front-line women. These particular women are with the U.S. Army. They are on the ground in a province that is seeing a lot of hostile action, going door to door with infantry troops in groups of two to try to meet Afghan women – the thinking being that if these women can make connections and engage the Afghan women in these villages that perhaps some of the seeds can be sown to gain some ground in the war.

Schapiro: So these are called female engagement teams?

Wells: Yes. It was started in 2009 by the U.S. Marines, who were going out in rural Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan, who were going door to door trying to meet with local villagers and get them on board with the U.S. campaign. They were gravely offending people by looking at their women, by talking to their women, by trying to address their women. So, the program got started by these guys who realized that, “Listen, what we really need is female soldiers out here with us.”

Schapiro: So what do the women go through to prepare for this kind of assignment?

Wells: In March, I spent about a week in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with a team of female Marines. They had all volunteered; it was a group of 45 women. They were put in a three-month training program that included some basic Pashtu lessons. They had a lot of combat training, because these women were tasked with being on the ground in a country where there’s a war and going out with male infantry. So they had a lot of shooting practice, drills; the training was quite rigorous. The physical training that I saw, I wasn’t incredibly impressed with the fitness of the women. They had a physical fitness test ­– a basic Marine fitness test – and not all of the women passed, which is, of course, a danger when you’re talking about going on daylong foot patrols in 100-degree heat. But the women were very dedicated, and their families had put a lot on the line so they could go out there and do this job.

Schapiro: You don’t have a military background yourself. What prompted you to be interested in this story?

Wells: These women are making a huge sacrifice: the American women and their families, and the Afghan women, too. It’s a huge security risk for them to accept and deal with American women. I think it’s an important story, and Americans need to know about it.

Schapiro: What were the women Marines like that you met?

Wells: One woman is a single mother of a young girl, and she had decided that she was going to leave her daughter behind because she said to me: “Deploying to Helmand province is, at the end of the day, better for both of us. It means that I’ll get a higher pay raise; it means that while I’m in Afghanistan, my salary is tax-free; it means that I’ll move up the ranks quickly.”

Schapiro: You’ve been following these Marines at Camp Lejeune. Are you going to meet up with them in Afghanistan?

Wells: I am joining a different female engagement team that is being put together by the Army. I don’t know the women that I’m going to meet, but I do know the terrain and the territory, so it’s a strategically important area for our success in Afghanistan, and the women are very important, because they are a major part of the so-called heart-and-mind campaign.

Schapiro: You’re going into a difficult part of Afghanistan ­– really at the front lines. What did you do to prepare for your deployment?

Wells: While I’m talking to you guys, currently, I am in Georgia, taking a hostile environment training course, and it’s five days of intensive medical training, safety awareness, how to deal with riots and simulated exercises. I think it’s the closest simulation to war that I can get without actually being there.

Schapiro: You’re days away from leaving. How do you feel?

Wells: I’m in a state of emotional flux. I’m having the ups and the downs. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be on the ground.

Schapiro: That’s certainly understandable. We’re really looking forward to hearing from you again, Mimi, as you get out there in the field.

Wells: And I look forward to talking to you guys when I’m on the ground and just taking you with me on this journey.

Video Credits:
Marjorie McAfee – Producer
Charlotte Buchen – Editor
David Ritsher – Senior Digital Editor
Stephen Talbot – Senior Producer 
Mimi Wells – Videographer and Photographer

Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.

Mimi Wells

Mimi Wells is a multimedia journalist based out of New York. In May 2011, she graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She then studied Pashtu on a scholarship from the South Asia Language Institute. In September 2011, Mimi traveled to eastern Afghanistan with the support of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Her writing and photography have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, CNN.com and The New York Times.