FALLUJAH, IRAQ -- Sgt. Natalie Cespuglio, a Sisters of Fallujah trainer with Regimental Combat Team-1, assists an Iraqi women in firing an M9 pistol on the firing range here, April 21. The Sisters of Fallujah undergo several days of security training to certify and work alongside Iraqi Police at entry control points (ECP) throughout Fallujah. (OFFICIAL U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Chris Lyttle)
Story by Cpl. Chris Lyttle
FALLUJAH, Iraq – Entry control points (ECP) throughout Fallujah are designed to protect the city from harm and prevent people from transporting illegal contraband such as weapons and explosive materials. Coalition forces discovered the enemy exploiting the cultural sensitivity precluding the search of females by having females carry contraband into the city.
Coalition forces then employed female search teams from units such as Combat Logistics Battalion-1 to alleviate the threat of women being used to sneak contraband such as electrical devices, wires, and other bomb making material. This still posed a problem as the female Marines could only be pulled away from their primary duties for short periods.
To rebalance the shift in Coalition manpower and further transition the role of security from Coalition forces to Iraqi Police, last year 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment began the Sisters of Fallujah, a program designed to train local Iraqi women in security operations to search other Iraqi women entering the city through ECPs. The trained Iraqi women were employed throughout the city and have proven themselves to be an effective security element in the prevention of dangerous items entering the city.
3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment returned to Iraq this year as part of Regimental Combat Team-1 and continued the program with the help of female Marines from CLB-1 and instructors from the International Police Advisors (IPA) as they recently graduated several new recruits to work at ECPs throughout the city.
“Their main goal is to check the females, check bags and search the children as well,” said Anna Bailey, an IPA who is leading the sisters’ program for her first time. “In (Iraqi culture), the men are not allowed to touch the women (in routine searches). There’s a safety issue there that needs to be addressed, and that’s when the community chose to step up”
Fallujah follows cities such as Baghdad and Ramadi in the societal changes allowing women to serve a law enforcement role. Although the Sisters of Fallujah solely perform their duties at ECPs, the training to become a member covers an array of relevant topics. The women participated in lectures on police ethics, human rights, torture, women’s issues, working in a terrorist environment, small-arms training and first aid.
Bailey said the IPA’s and Marines do not intend to make the women IPs, but to give them the training for their current duties and prepare them if the city were to one day promote women with more responsibilities.
The new sisters came from areas in and away from the city to take part in this program and they are doing their part to restore the security of Iraq.
29-year-old ‘Ruby,’ a newly graduated Sister of Fallujah, said she moved from Baghdad to work here after her mother, who is a fellow sister, told her about this job opportunity.
“She said she was willing to work with Coalition forces after she realized they were not the enemy,” Ruby said through an interpreter. “Her feelings before are opposite from now. She said she feels closer (to Marines), she is very serious about her job and she feels stronger.”
The Marines and IPAs reinforced their new sense of empowerment when the sisters fired AK-47 rifles and pistols on the firing range during training day three. It was weapons training that they may not use at ECPs at the moment, but it instilled a higher level of confidence within the women.
Most of the sisters admitted they had never handled a weapon before. That was evident when they stepped up to the firing line at 25 yards. With hands trembling, and reluctant to be the first to pull the trigger on the line, the sisters each paired up with CLB-1 Marines to ensure the weapons were handled properly and the rounds were landing on the targets, or at least safely in the right direction. Nearing the end of the shoot, the nervousness disappeared along with the rounds as the Marines and Iraqi women opened up and became more at ease with each other.
“I’m scared the first time, but after I feel better,” Ruby said.” “I feel better about everything, the searches and the shooting, everything. I feel different. I’m happy about this job because I feel like I’m important with the people when I search them. I feel important to my family now because I have this job. This is good for me.”
After the shooting, the Iraqi women were tasked with performing on-the-job training at the ECPs. This gave the women the opportunity to see what their duties will entail, to include personal searches, item searches and effective questioning.
Sgt. Natalie Cespuglio, an on-the-job trainer from CLB-1, has worked with the sisters in-classroom and at ECPs for three months and explained why the success of the sisters’ program is not only important for the security of Iraq, but for the women who are standing up in a security role here for the first time.
“We can’t give up on them because if we give up on them, they’ll give up on themselves,” Cespuglio said. “They really do look up to us. They want to know everything about us. They want to know how we live and what we do. They tell us their situations or problems they have at home with their spouse or their kids and ask us for advice. We try to point them in the right direction and tell them the different options that they have and we compare. They say yeah we can do this, we can’t do that. Even though they’re older than us, we’re like their older sisters.”
Cespuglio said the sisters expressed a positive attitude in that they are doing their jobs for a greater cause.
“They’re very happy. They feel like they’re serving their country- they’re very patriotic,” Cespuglio said. “They feel like they’re making a difference because they want to catch the ‘bad people’ too.”
At the end of the training, the new Sisters of Fallujah were honored through a graduation ceremony and given certificates for their training. Lt. Col. James Zientek, the battalion commander of 3rd Bn. 6th Marines, addressed the sisters and thanked them for their willingness to take part in the program.
“I would like to express my heartfelt thanks for your participation in this program and for doing your part to ensure a safe and secure Fallujah,” Zientek said to the new Sisters of Fallujah. “I speak for my Marines and I know (Faisal Isma’il Husayn a L-Zobai, Fallujah chief of police) Colonel Faisal’s police all look forward to working with you for the greater security (of Fallujah).”
Bailey described the overall challenge of teaching through cultural barriers and how, after her first class, the benefit for Iraqi women comes through employing them beyond their conventional occupations.
“The training through an (interpreter) is kind of difficult, but once the concepts were understood it was good,” Bailey said. “Also to see the females open up with the hands-on training, it was good for them get involved and know that they can do the job. This is the beginning, so this is all history in the making. Hopefully over time, the men of the area will catch on and realize that these women are needed for their safety and for the families of this community and hopefully they’ll realize that they can do other jobs as well.”