Seaman Shayla Miles of Pulaski, Tenn., a seabee, saws a board at Bagram Air Base. (Photo by Erika Stetson)
KABUL, Afghanistan (January 27, 2012) — An eight-woman construction team wrapping up a deployment in Afghanistan has taken the country by storm.
Their story, which “all started out as just eight women who wanted to swing a hammer,” according to team member Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Mann, has captivated audiences throughout America since it was covered in the Los Angeles Times and several other outlets since.
The group wasn’t specifically deployed as an all-female crew; it was coincidence so many women ended up at Bagram Air Base’s Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4. Their work was standard Seabee duty: building an operations center, two barracks and a gym for Coalition forces in northern Helmand province.
But what stands out is the play of their personalities – their rapid-fire banter, their professional pride as they compete with male co-workers and their perspectives on interactions with local Afghans.
“We’re women who work in construction,” Mann said. “Even if in reality there’s nothing for us to prove, we will always want to outwork the guys next to us. … They think it’s fun too – and it’s even more fun when they get ‘smoked’ by us.”
Mann, of Gautier, Miss., said the team woke up every day excited about their work, and often had the chance to meet with locals, especially Afghan children.
Many team members said they’ll remember their time with Afghan children the most.
“That was really cool, to see those kids and how they act – to see them wide-eyed to learn that females are out there working,” said team member Seaman Kacie Dunlavey of Lompoc, Calif.
The Seabees, based at Port Hueneme, Calif., also universally praised Afghans, describing them as working as best they can to resist insurgent intimidation and build a better future for themselves and their families.
“We had the opportunity of interacting with the Afghan nationals, helping them learn the English language,” said team leader Petty Officer 3rd Class Gafayat Moradeyo, of Abeokuta in Ogun State, Nigeria. “We got to understand the culture of Afghanistan. … For me they’re just like everybody else – maybe the culture is different.”
She called Afghans normal, “loving” people with families and aspirations common to individuals around the world.
Mann said non-Afghans may have a mistaken impression that a high percentage of Afghans are loyal to insurgents, but most simply want personal security and economic stability.
“There’s more good than bad – the bad is a rarity. The bad is something that rarely shows its face to you,” she said, adding that “I think they’re just as curious about us as we are about them.”
Simply by working among locals, team members said, the Seabees were able to influence perceptions among Afghans, both male and female, about what women could do.
“We not only showed the [Coalition] military guys, but there were a lot of military Afghans too. We gained their respect,” said team member Seaman Carla Diazcastillo of Arequipa, Peru.
Officials initially considered the implications of fielding an all-female team before deploying the crew to Helmand. But the women worked to set any concerns to rest.
“There will always be opinions,” Mann said. “It’s how you strive to step above that opinion that defines what kind of woman you are in the military.”
Mann stressed that given the presence of Seabees in the wider force, there were no policy hurdles to overcome.
The group finished their work in record time, which further drove home that an all-female crew is as capable as any other, team members said.
Mann added that it was fortunate there were no delays associated with weather or supplies, saying that “everything fell into place perfectly” to help prove that females are just as capable as men in construction.
They did not face combat during their deployment, only the discomforts of austere conditions such as cold showers. But the crew gelled, each falling into complimentary roles.
“Normally the first push with the first crew has its hiccups,” Mann said. But “we all had parts that we flowed on – a very fluid effort. … That’s what you want it to be like with a crew. You want someone to see what needs to be done, then just go do it.”
Team member Shelby Lutrey, of Apache Junction, Ariz., said she’d remember the crew’s camaraderie most.
“I think I’m closer to the people I work side by side with on this deployment than I’ve ever been,” she said.
Other Seabees on the team are Petty Officer 3rd Class Jessica Vera, of Chicago; Petty Officer 3rd Class Kadisha Lee, of Compton, Calif.; and Seaman Shayla Miles of Pulaski, Tenn.