AFGHANISTAN - With females making up almost half the population of Afghanistan, U.S. forces find themselves faced with a barrier since in a Muslim country women cannot interact with men who are not family.
However, lately U.S. forces have been taking steps to reach this key segment of Afghan society.
As fighting continues to rage in Afghanistan, the search is on for ways to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
Toward that end, U.S. Marines are employing a secret weapon in the heavily contested south that they hope will help turn the tables on the Taliban influence there.
From a distance, a squad out on patrol may look average. But a closer shows some of the Marines are women.
Female Engagement Team
They are part of a Female Engagement team on the front lines reaching out to part of the population that, until now, has been ignored.
"Forty-eight percent of the Afghan population is female, and these infantry units cannot engage that population," 1st Lt. Hannah Sides said. "But we can."
"We've had four patrols so far - we've gone out and engaged multiple females," she added. "We had a medical clinic today - we've been received very very well. We take a native speaker with us, and people are just thrilled to have somebody actually care about them and want to come see how they are doing."
Their translator, an Afghan-American woman named Hali Jilani, believes this strategy is vital.
"If we don't have these teams to go in and connect with the women, we're not going to be able to effectively succeed," Jilani said. "Those are the people I've always considered our natural allies and yet we're not getting to them."
So far, this approach has been very well received, and Afghan women aren't shy about sharing their opinions about the war.
"What a lot of women are telling us is that for God's sake, can't we get these men to stop fighting?" Jilani asked. "Isn't there something we can do, as women?"
Doing Their Part
And the female Marines are definitely doing their part. Living conditions are tough, with extreme temperatures and lots and lots of dust. But there is no special treatment and it's not expected.
"I wear the same Marine Corps. emblem - I am a Marine," one woman said. "If you look at any of the girls around here they'll tell you, 'I'm a Marine.'
"We love camping! We're Marines!" another female fighter said.
Sides has a husband back at home who might not be as enthusiastic about her front-line tour of duty -- especially considering that this unit lost five Marines in combat during the summer.
"He worries about me, but if he didn't worry about me, he wouldn't love me," she said.
Jilani said the women "are absolutely awesome."
"We have to go in and assure people that we're not the enemy - we are not the former Soviet Union," she said. "We're actually coming to their houses, not just as medics and caregivers, but we're coming as friends."