By Marine Corps Cpl. Katherine Keleher
2nd Marine Expeditionary Force
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JACKSON, Afghanistan, July 28, 2011 – More than 6,500 miles from the Pacific Northwest, the arid heat near the front lines in Afghanistan is almost the complete opposite of the damp, cool weather of Monroe, Wash.
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Chandra Francisco left the comforts of Monroe in 2009 to serve her country, and is now deployed as part of the Marine Corps female engagement team in the Sangin district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Francisco, a supply administration Marine by trade, graduated from Monroe High School in 2007. After working full-time immediately after high school, she decided she needed a change.
“I needed to get out and start my life,” said Francisco, 22. “I needed money for school, so I decided to join the military. I looked around at other branches, and I just felt like the Marine Corps was more for me.”
Drawn to the challenge of being one of “the few and the proud,” Francisco said, she enlisted for four years of what she thought would be accounting for and ordering supplies for her fellow Marines.
She thought wrong. Last fall, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group placed Francisco on the female engagement team.
“At first I really had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “Once I started training, I loved it. This is, by far, one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
After four months of training at her home station at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Francisco and the rest of her engagement team deployed to Afghanistan in late spring. The women were split into teams of two. Francisco and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Richeal were assigned to support 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, in the Sangin district.
The concept of the all-women engagement teams originated in 2010 as a way for coalition forces to show their respect to the cultural norms of Afghanistan, Francisco said. The teams work to build relationships with the Afghan people, especially women and children, who otherwise would be unreachable due to local and religious customs, which frown upon contact between unmarried men and women.
Afghan children typically attend the team’s all-women meetings, and the team members usually ask what they or their battalion can do to help improve the quality of life for local youths. Female engagement teams have helped to arrange projects such as building schools, bringing in medical care and providing access to clean water.
The children provide common ground with which to begin relationships, Francisco said, noting she has a sincere passion for the children she meets.
“[Francisco is] really good with the children,” said Richeal, a Le Claire, Iowa, native. “None of these women or children are educated, and there is a language barrier a lot of the time, which makes it really hard to understand each other. But Francisco’s patience is really good with them. She goes out of her way to make everyone comfortable.”
To help ease tensions during her meetings, Francisco carries things such as candy and toys while on patrol.
“Whenever there is an awkward situation and tensions are rising, [Francisco] says ‘When in doubt, bubble out,’ and she pulls out these bubbles to play with,” Richeal said. “The kids go crazy. It makes them happy and eases the situation.”
Bringing smiles to the children’s faces is a natural instinct, Francisco said.
“You can’t help but to love on these kids -- they’re going through so much more than a child should have to,” she said. “I’m just grateful my sister, Kaylen, doesn’t have to deal with this type of stuff. The poverty, lack of education, lack of hygiene and food -- it’s so sad. You only want the best for the people who are closest to you, and I would never want a child to have to go through a lifestyle like this.”
The engagement teams help local women learn trades they can use to make money, and they help locate teachers for local schools.
“I’ve never been so grateful for the people in my life and the things I have until I came out here,” Francisco said. “I think a lot of people take for granted what they have. Give them a month out here, and they’ll see how good they have it.”