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Shawn Vestal: Battlefield diplomacy hits mark

Elizabeth Trobaugh spent much of 2012 in Afghanistan as the Army officer in charge of a brand-new kind of unit: a Female Engagement Team.

Trobaugh, a Spokane native who graduated from Mt. Spokane High School in 2006, and her soldiers spent months trying to form relationships with women in rural villages of the high desert in the country’s Ghazni region. It was a new – and not always well-understood – part of the American battle against the counterinsurgency in that country, and for Trobaugh and her team it required a lot of delicate diplomacy. Eventually, they were able to provide 10 sewing machines – old-fashioned foot-pedal models – to allow a group of Afghan women the chance to run their own business from their homes, without running afoul of cultural traditions.

At the ceremony where the sewing machines were presented, a young woman in a blue burqa approached Trobaugh with great urgency. She sat almost knee-to-knee with her, Trobaugh said, and an interpreter translated her words: “I heard you can help get women to college. I heard that you have that power … Please help me.”

Trobaugh – a captain serving in one of the toughest regions of the world – felt her eyes well up with tears. “This is the reason I was there,” she said this week in an interview. “To help this young woman.”

What Trobaugh was, and was not, able to do for that young woman says a lot about the larger work she was doing in Afghanistan: small steps with large consequences, accomplished after arduous efforts and against obstacles ranging from language to military culture. Her commanding officer was initially unenthusiastic about providing educational resources for local women; Trobaugh made the case as forcefully as she could, to no avail. So she did her duty and obeyed.

Eventually, though, her battalion commander relented. Among her last tasks in Afghanistan, before returning in September 2012, was to begin connecting women to educational opportunities through the 10,000 Women program, a Goldman Sachs initiative to provide training for women worldwide.

Her time as the leader of the fledgling FET was likely one of the main reasons she recently was named a prestigious Pickering Fellow – a collaborative project between the State Department and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to train people for foreign service. She will begin graduate studies at Columbia University this fall, working toward a master’s degree in international affairs, with the goal of working with women in the battlefield.

Trobaugh grew up in Spokane and studied at Mills College, a liberal arts college for women in Oakland, California. While there, she became interested in the condition of women worldwide. As she wrote in a piece for the Mills alumni magazine, “I learned what it means to be a world citizen and realized the unwavering duty I have to be a force for good for all women.”

She was also in the ROTC program as a way to help pay for tuition. Upon graduation, she learned of the new FET program.

“As soon as I found out about the Female Engagement Team, I thought, ‘A-ha! This is where I can make a difference,’ ” she said.

She was selected for that role and attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in November 2011.

Trobaugh would be deployed to Afghanistan the following March. Her Spokane connections worked in her favor before she even left. Trobaugh had been given an assignment to compile a wide range of information about conditions of life, resources and other matters regarding the area where the FET team would be working.

As a new second lieutenant, she felt overwhelmed. Not long after, she was talking by phone to her mother, Tana Young. Her mom told her that Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan from Spokane, had spoken a few months earlier at her church – Millwood Presbyterian.

Maybe Trobaugh could reach out to the ambassador for help with her assignment. Young arranged to get Crocker’s email address through the man who organized the Millwood speech, former S-R staffer Dan Hansen. And Trobaugh – violating chain-of-command protocols – sent him a note directly, asking if he could help.

Turns out he could. Crocker responded with contact information to help her find what she needed and ran a little interference on her behalf, she said.

“He was so gracious,” she said.

Upon her arrival in Afghanistan, she wrote the brigade mission for the three teams of seven soldiers on the FET. Trobaugh is careful to note that she’s not speaking on behalf of the Army, but out of her own personal experience. But to her, helping women in these rural areas was a crucial way of furthering the overall U.S. mission – in addition to humanitarian efforts on behalf of those who are “among the most marginalized people in the world.”

Because the U.S. effort was a counterinsurgency, “you have to get the people to not want to join the insurgency,” Trobaugh said. “When you educate women, they will educate their children, and their children will be less likely to join the insurgency.”

Trobaugh said she focused on surveying and developing relationships with women – a major hurdle in itself, given the extent of male authority over their daily movements. Her team also worked to build ties with local officials. She recalls a village official telling her early on that any woman found to be part of a women’s organization would be imprisoned along with her husband.

But that local official came around when he saw that the women could work for themselves out of their homes and that his village might reap benefits from their collaboration with the FET team.

The sewing machine exchange was the culmination of her efforts, though she’s not sure whether their business has continued or what has happened to the women in the village. But she knew that the hope in the eyes of the young woman who wanted to go to college – that fierce hope in the direst circumstances – was the front line of her most important battle.

“Everything we had worked for was not in vain at that moment,” she said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.