Lieutenant Colleen Farrell '08 with a young boy during a medical outreach mission in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
A Marine’s Mission
According to Marine Corps rules, Lieutenant Colleen Farrell ’08 can’t join the infantry and, as a female, is barred from frontline combat. But since Farrell deployed to Forward Operating Base Delaram in southern Afghanistan in September, she has been joining daily patrols in volatile Helmand Province.
Farrell is there working with the Marine Corps’ new Female Engagement Teams (FET), made up of female soldiers whose job it is to connect with Afghan women, find out their needs, try to improve their circumstances, and, perhaps, collect intelligence that could save lives. The initiative, which launched last April, is part of an effort to address the cultural restrictions that bar most rural Afghan women from speaking to, or even being seen by, males they are not related to.
“Working on the ground with the infantry unit is something few female Marines get to do,” says Farrell, who volunteered for the assignment. “Getting to go out on patrol and engage with the local community is a rare opportunity, and when the chance came up, I jumped at it.”
Before deploying to Afghanistan, Farrell had been stationed at Camp Pendleton, in California, where she worked as an air support control officer. In order to join the Female Engagement Team, she had to undergo a special training program, which included a Pashtu language class, a combat life-saving course and weapons training.
At FOB Delaram, Farrell commands a platoon of 12 female Marines who go out in groups of four. “We also have female linguists stationed with each team,” she says. “Many of them are American-born or had gone to America in the 1970s or ’80s, and they are extremely helpful.”
“Because the women rarely leave the family compounds, we go through the men,” Farrell says. “We’ll knock on the door and ask the men if we can speak to their women. First, they want to make sure we’re women, so we show them our hair.”
Farrell and her teams have been able to do medical outreach, she says, and conduct training in basic hygiene and health-care practices. “We are trying to establish a women’s vocational center where women can learn how to sew and make some income for their families. In several communities, we are trying to establish girls’ schools.”
For Farrell, whose tour is up in April, life on base means living and working in tents. “But we have a chow hall, wireless Internet and showers with hot water,” she says. “It’s not bad at all.”
For troops operating off the base, or what’s called “outside the wire,” constant vigilance is a necessity. Regulation gear includes Kevlar vests and goggles and fireproof gloves. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are a constant danger on the roads and in the villages. In one incident, Farrell and her team found themselves guarding an IED site. “The local police had found an IED and we just happened to be traveling by, so we called it in,” she says. “We didn’t want anyone coming by and setting it off accidentally, so we waited in our vehicles for someone to come and control-detonate it.”
So how did a Haverford classics major become a Marine? “I was always interested in the military,” says Farrell, whose sister is also a Marine. “I liked the discipline and I wanted to serve my country. I applied the summer of my junior year, so all of my senior year I was kind of preparing, and right after I graduated I went to officer candidate training.”
So far, she has no regrets. “I am only a couple of years into my military career and I am already commanding other Marines,” Farrell says. “That teaches you a lot about leadership and about yourself.”
Making Farrell’s career path somewhat unusual is that she is a Quaker. “My family is Quaker and I went to Quaker schools since I was 4 years old,” says Farrell, a Mullica Hill, N.J., native who kept up her ties to her local Meeting while a Haverford student. “My Meeting has been extremely supportive of my decision,” she says, “and my parents are proud of my sister and me.”
Farrell sees no conflict between Quakerism, with its emphasis on peace, and her decision to become a Marine. “I think being a Quaker is about finding your own path to God,” she says. “It’s about finding your own moral compass, and this is where I found myself going.”