Fighting Gender Boundaries on the Front Lines
Terp’s New Book Reveals Impact of Military’s Female Engagement Teams
In the midst of the most recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military deployed teams of women to do what male troops could not.
Before women could officially hold combat roles, Female Engagement Teams (FETs) attached to all-male infantry units and gathered intelligence on insurgent groups by building relationships with local women living under strict gender segregation and rules.
Eileen Rivers ’02 shares the stories of three American servicewomen who pushed gender boundaries through the FET to serve on the front lines in her new book “Beyond the Call,” released today.
The topic is personal for Rivers, who, in 1995, interrupted her undergraduate education in English at the University of Maryland to join the U.S. Army.
“I loved being in the military,” says Rivers. “Being a female in the military, there are a ton of opportunities for women, and part of the reason I wrote this book was because I wanted to show those opportunities…I wanted to show another side of the women’s experience.”
Rivers trained as an Arabic linguist at the Defense Language Institute in California and attended intelligence school in Texas. Ultimately, she was sent abroad, including a six-month deployment to Camp Doha in Kuwait. There, she worked as a listener, tapping into phone calls and attempting to identify potential enemy targets. She also maintained her love of storytelling by writing for the base newspaper.
Rivers returned to civilian life in 1999, and she quickly got a job reporting at a paper in Augusta, Ga. Although she covered a wide variety of topics, from crime to the arts, she wasn’t satisfied with the national media’s coverage of the military.
“I wasn’t seeing the expansive kinds of stories that portrayed the military experience that I knew was out there,” says Rivers.
She re-enrolled at UMD in 2000, this time at what’s now the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, and juggled her studies with a full-time position at The Washington Post. After graduating, she spent the next few years there before transferring to USA Today, where she’s now a digital content editor for the editorial page.
Rivers sent out a call to action through USA Today’s parent company, asking soldiers and Marines on the ground to send her their photos and stories. The response she received led to her discovery of the FETs, and the beginning of her book was born.
Over the next seven years, Rivers made contact with many FET members and found Maj. Maria Rodriguez, Capt. Johanna Smoke and Sgt. Sheena Adams, who became the main subjects of her book. Jamila Abbas, an Afghani feminist who was often targeted by the Taliban, also plays a prominent role in the book.
Sexist attitudes, bureaucratic red tape and lack of resources didn’t stop the FET units from gathering vital information on insurgent groups, helping local women establish businesses and assisting in health and domestic issues. Although combat roles were opened to American servicewomen in 2015, Rivers highlights that “women have been fighting alongside men from the beginning.”
“They had their own separate mission, which they often struggled to complete, but it was no less important,” she says. “For more immediate and actionable information, what the FET were doing was incredibly effective.”
Kirkus Reviews said Rivers’ own military experience gave the book an especially useful perspective and called it “a solid, fact-filled look at an underreported piece of the American military.”
Rivers will host a book launch event from 5:30–7 p.m. Thursday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va.