US Marine Lance Corporal Tiffany Jones chews tobacco, spitting the juice into the Afghan desert as she talks, and wears her M-16 automatic rifle slung across her chest just like her male colleagues.
Jones wanted to be a sniper but, like many women on active service in the US military, she has never been outside “the wire” the heavily guarded razor-wire perimeter of her base.
“I don’t think the American public on a whole is ready to hear about females in the military getting blown up and their body parts everywhere,” Jones said.
Still, Jones said she would like to see more women in combat.
In the US Marines, women cannot fight with units engaged in direct combat with the enemy. While they do get some infantry training, they cannot join infantrymen on the front line.
Jones, 20, works in a motor pool at Camp Leatherneck, a sprawling base of thousands of US Marines in southern Helmand province, the heartland of the Taliban-led insurgency.
Her hair is cut about an inch above her collar, according to Marine regulations for women with short hair, and she works with a unit fixing armoured vehicles.
She longs to go outside “the wire”, but the rate at which armoured vehicles are being ambushed and blown up in a growing insurgency means Jones’s skills are needed more at Leatherneck’s motor pool.
Violence in Afghanistan has reached its worst level this year since the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001. Casualties have soared since US and British forces launched major offensives in the south mid-year.
At least 882 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and US President Barack Obama is seriously considering sending thousands more to join a war many at home are becoming increasingly weary with.
Despite the dangers, women like Jones and Sergeant Shannon Boertmann are frustrated that camps like Leatherneck are as close to the frontline as they are likely to get.
Boertmann helps build bases from scratch, often in remote areas where Marine units have just taken new ground. But she is not trained for the infantry a high-risk specialty reserved for men, known as “grunts”, who are trained to kill.
“It’s a little bit (frustrating), I can understand why females are not out there, but at the same time I want to get out there,” Boertmann said.
“They have a really tight bond and I think ‘wow I wish I could be out there and try it’,” she says of the grunts.
Guns, buns and grunts
Women in the Marines’ trademark sand-coloured fatigues are a fairly common sight at Leatherneck and Barcha, a village and patrol base about 80 km (50 miles) south of Leatherneck.
Boertmann and 21-year-old Alabaman Lance Corporal Mary Birker have worked in “female engagement teams” who meet Afghan women in villages where “grunts” have pushed.
In deeply conservative Muslim Afghanistan, NATO rules state house searches must be conducted by the Afghan army wherever possible. Female engagement teams are there to talk to the women.
When they meet women face-to-face in their homes, Birker and Boertmann are temporarily allowed to flout the Marine Corps’ strict hair regulations by wearing headscarves, or hejabs, underneath their helmets, as a courtesy.
In Barcha, Boertmann wears her long blonde hair in a tight French braid, which allows her to put on her helmet when she goes on patrol. Birker’s hair is slicked back and coiled into a tight bun, by regulation no larger than her military ID card.
“Hairspray is a big one. We ran out of hairspray a lot down in Camp Dwyer, we were like ‘what are we going to keep our hair up with today?’,” Jones said.
But those are trivial considerations when it comes to their sincere desire to join the grunts on the frontline if the Pentagon suddenly changed its rules.
“If somebody came and said, ‘do you want to be a grunt today?’ hell yes, I’d jump at the chance to go,” Birker said.
Jones quickly agreed.
“I’ll get my M-203, let’s go,” she said, referring to a grenade launcher which can be attached to a rifle.
Pic: US marines