CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Instead of just kicking down doors outside the safety of Camp Fallujah's barriers, Marines are also trying to open doors and dissolve barriers within the minds of the Iraqi people.
In an effort to prevent further violence, as well as encourage a more positive relationship, some female Marines are shedding combat- service-support roles and leaving the base to become part of the Marine Corps FST, or female search team.
"(Utilizing the FST) shows that we are trying to accommodate (the Iraqis), and make an effort to abide by their moral code," said Cpl. Jennifer B. Holt, 25 from Clay, Ala. According to cultural studies, Iraqis don't show affection between males and females in public. By using the FST, Marines respect these cultural differences in an effort to put the Iraqis at ease.
During searches, female Marines stay pleasant and welcoming toward the Iraqi women. Such a display helps relieve any jitters or nervousness the Iraqis may harbor while interacting with FST Marines dressed for combat.
"You can get a feel for what's going on just by looking at them, in their eyes, you can tell if they're nervous," said 1st Lt. Paula B. Taibi, a 31-year-old assistant operations officer for Combat Logistics Battalion 5, Combat Logistics Regiment 15, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward).
"I try to be sure to present myself in a calm manner to them," said Holt, "so that they don't think I am trying to overpower them."
Taibi said that the Iraqis appreciate the Marines' professional behavior, and in turn cooperate with ease.
"They understand that we are trying to help them," said Sgt. Maureen D. Mendenhall, a substance abuse counselor and career planner for CLB 5.
It also helps the Marines keeping the peace in Fallujah. From large sums of money to guns and electrical cords, female Marines keep a look-out for anything that could potentially harm their brothers-in-arms.
"You find (something suspicious), and you realize that could have been used for an improvised explosive device somewhere," said Mendenhall, 25 from Edmonds, Wash.
"Of course anytime that somebody comes through and we are able to stop them with guns or IED paraphernalia, that's exciting because you know that that's one less person who's going to hurt our boys out there," said Holt, a company clerk for Engineer Company, CLB 5.
Searching for possible insurgent paraphernalia and working around Fallujah's dangerous city limits put these females in a position to become casualties themselves. But they all expressed confidence in the safety procedures the Marines have prepared.
The females work in an out-of-sight area, and there are ballistic barriers, said Taibi.
Plus the infantry have eyes out for the safety of their Marines, she added.
"Since we work with the guys, we're pretty regular, we kind of have a bond with them," said Holt. She said the Marines are quick to respond if the FST needs them or have something to report.
But Marines don't report finding weapons very often when they conduct a search. Since children accompany their mothers into the search area, more often than not, Marines tend to find the grasping arms of Iraqi infants instead.
"A lot of women hand their children off to the female Marines," said Taibi.
Of course the Iraqis expect to get their children back. But not before these semper females leave the kids with a good impression of Americans.
"I always try to shake their hands, squat down and get on their level... and leave them with a good memory of us," said Holt.
When greeting Iraqi children, many FST members arm themselves with smiles, candy and the occasional stuffed animal.
"Sometimes, they look back and smile," continued Holt, "and you know you really touched them."
Perhaps more important than securing the spirit of the Iraqi people in the present, is to gain the trust of their children, and insure for them a peaceful future.
"It put it all into perspective," said Taibi about her experience on the FST, "instead of fighting war against a people you haven't seen, you really find out about the people you are fighting for."