MONTEREY, Calif. – After a 15-month deployment to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009, Sgt. Janiece Marquez decided she not only wanted to return for a second tour, she wanted to experience the country in an entirely different way.
Marquez reenlisted so she could attend the Basic Pashto Course at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. After graduating in 2010, she proceeded to compete for a slot in a cultural unit deploying to Afghanistan.
“I do think that our team was one of the most successful because of our language capability and our size,” said Marquez, the only Soldier on the team well versed in Pashto. These abilities allowed her and her partner to split up during missions and build relations separate from each other, doubling their productivity.
Following rigorous physical and mental tests, Marquez and 29 others were selected for special all-female teams, each made up of two Soldiers and an interpreter. Each team deployed for seven months to conduct village stability operations. They engaged the women and children of Afghanistan, who are often unseen and unheard, and comprise close to 70 percent of the Afghan population.
Due to Afghan cultural norms, male service members are not allowed to enter Afghan homes when women are present. Having female teams work side by side with traditional all-male units, allows U.S. forces to work with the entire Afghan population, providing additional resources of information to tap into.
The fact that she spoke Pashto also led the locals to trust her more than previous U.S. forces they had encountered. “I think some of our biggest successes were gaining rapport with the locals …. We were the first elements in Kunar province to actually be able to go into the homes, sit and drink tea with the women,” said Marquez.
Despite her extensive language training, she still faced difficulties, since she spoke a southern dialect of Pashto but deployed to eastern Afghanistan.
“My biggest obstacle was dialect … so I talked a lot with the interpreters and studied my books in eastern dialect until I developed both.” After a while, Marquez was able to recognize people who came into the village speaking a southern dialect. “I could pick up immediately that they weren’t from the area, which was very significant.”
Marquez’s first time using her skills on the ground was a conversation with an Afghan midwife during one of her team’s first missions — they didn’t yet have an interpreter.
In speaking with the woman and asking their prepared questions, Marquez suddenly ran out of things to say. “I pretty much used up all of my Pashto, so I (did) something that as Americans would be completely acceptable. I said, ‘That’s a really nice ring.’ So what does she do? She takes off her ring and gives it to me. And that ring probably costs her everything she makes in a year,” she recounted.
Marquez immediately realized her mistake and understood that the midwife was culturally obligated to give her the ring.
“Our Pashto instructors at DLI were very specific about what you do and don’t do. The instructors do immerse you in a language but you don’t really realize you’re being immersed into the entire culture until you experience it firsthand,” recalled Marquez.
In addition to learning about the culture, Marquez noted that “DLI curriculum talks about a lot of flooding, famine, malnutrition in children, infant mortality rates and war, so not only are you learning a language but you’re also learning about what they’re going through currently; they teach you what these people know.”
The bonds she formed by being able to relate to the locals through their language and culture became essential to not only her mission, but also the Afghan people. As she was leaving the country, they told her, “You can’t leave; you’re the only woman out here who really understands us and can speak to us in our tongue. You are our rock, and our in-between.”
When comparing her first deployment to Afghanistan with this most recent one, Marquez felt her language knowledge and abilities provided a greater reward, both personally and professionally. “I used my language every single day in my deployment. If we weren’t on a mission that day, then I was talking to my interpreters or local nationals on base.”