FORWARD OPERATING BASE PAYNE, Afghanistan -- Capt. Maria Marte ignores female hair regulations. What's more, she orders the female Marines in her charge to do the same.
However, their actions aren't a flagrant disregard of Marine Corps policy, but rather an operational necessity.
During a recent sweep of villages suspected of harboring and supporting Taliban and anti-coalition militia, Marte and other female Marines and Sailors from throughout the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) were assigned to combat patrols.
"We keep our hair down so when we get to a house or compound we're instantly recognizable under the helmets and flaks as women," said Marte, an engineering officer who augmented the MEU's operations section prior to the unit's deployment into Afghanistan. "The people here are very guarded about women and their contact with men outside the family. By having us here the locals are more at ease with us around their children and wives, and we can conduct a thorough search of everyone, not just the men."
During Operation RIO BRAVO in mid-May and also during prior and subsequent missions, teams of female searchers were assigned to Alpha and Charlie Companies of Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, the ground combat element of the 22d MEU (SOC).
"It's a first as far as I know," said Marte, referring to the teams' prolonged assignment to the rifle companies. "We've been out here with the grunts [infantry] for nearly three weeks straight. We've climbed the same hills as the men, searched the same compounds, and gone through everything they have."
While Marte headed up the team with Alpha Company, 2nd Lt. Melanie Stock, adjutant for MEU Service Support Group 22, took her team with Charlie Company.
"Our searchers have been phenomenal," said Capt. Paul Merida, Charlie Co.'s commanding officer, referring to Stock and Sgt. Maylene Rivera, a radio operator with the MEU Command Element. ""They've done everything we've asked of them, and more."
Petty Officer 3d Class Lori Butierries, a corpsman normally assigned to MEU Service Support Group 22, expressed apprehension when she first learned about the assignment.
"I was nervous when I first heard I was going to a rifle company," said the 22-year-old Florida native. "Of course they don't normally have women so I wasn't sure how I'd be received or supported. Turns out they've treated me great and given me all the support I needed."
During 'cordon and knock' operations where villages are surrounded and search teams go from house to house looking for enemy insurgents and caches of weapons and ammunition, the females accompany each search element. Since women are normally segregated from the males in Afghan society, the female Marines or Sailors would immediately seek out the women, usually clustered in corners or back rooms, and make their presence known.
"When they saw us they would usually relax a bit," said Marte. "This eased the tensions of the women and also the men, and allowed the engineers and grunts to go ahead with the search."
On the occasions where caches were found and women had to be searched, the task fell to the female Marines and Sailors. Demonstrating the U.S. has respect for local customs and traditions - and committed not to interfering with the Afghans' way of life - was the motivating factor behind assigning the women to the search teams.
In addition to helping conduct search operations, the attachments have carried their share of platoon-distributed ammunition and supplies, helped with working parties, and stood nighttime security watch.
"I couldn't accomplish my mission without the female Marines and Sailors," said Lt. Col. Asad A. Khan, commanding officer of BLT 1/6. "They're integral to our success here in Afghanistan."
According to Marte, she, Butierries, Stock, and the other female searchers intend to leave the field when the grunts do, and not a day sooner.
The 22nd MEU (SOC) also consists of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced) and is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker for Combined Joint Task Force 76.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.