Cpl. Nicole K. Estrada, a 21-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., received a kiss or “bosa” from a local boy in Rutbah, Iraq. During her time as a Lioness, Estrada befriended local women and practiced Arabic with some when they passed the traffic control point.
â€œIraq is full of pop tarts.â€ In every mess hall, packed in every care package, sitting in a box at the back of our classroom and now written on the wall of a bathroom stall in Al Asad.
I went to Al Asad for Lioness training with Regimental Combat Team 5. Iâ€™m a combat correspondent without any combat experience. Although Iâ€™m now a journalist for the Marine Corps, I have always been a journal-keeper of some sort.
A combat photographer, a field wireman and a cook with 1st Marine Logistics Group also volunteered for the program. This was our opportunity to serve a more direct role in this war. As females, being a Lioness gave us a rare opportunity to work â€œoutside the wire,â€ away from our desk jobs and away from working with tape recorders, cameras, wires and spatulas.
Our job was to search Iraqi females for suicide vests, fake identification and contraband at vehicle and entry control points in an effort to diminish the threat of female suicide bombers, while keeping in mind the gender sensitivities of the nationals.
The training course to prepare us for our duties included things we were already familiar with, such as rules of engagement, escalation of force, a combat lifesaver course and techniques from the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program we may need for self-defense. We fired our rifles and the AK-47s at the range, learned about sniper threats and the history of suicide bombers. We even had the opportunity to touch suicide vests retrieved after a failed terrorist attack.
Touching the vest brought the reality of the news straight to my hands. One was gray and made with fabric from a soldierâ€™s gear. It made me think of the belts worn by some newborn babies to protect the skin still attached to their belly buttons. That started a train of thought leading me to think of all the mothers who may have lost someone in this war. They could use their anger as an excuse to make something similar to what I was holding.
At the time, news of female suicide bombers was everywhere. In February two women executed a deadly attack in a Baghdad pet market, killing 99 people. The attack was one of several in the past year, making it seem to me like humans, not vehicles, were becoming the preferred method of transporting explosives. It made me wonder if terrorists had exhausted one tactic and moved on to another.
The news was probably what kept me awake through all the hours of wearying power point presentations.
The Arabic-language class was probably the most helpful training we received. Everyday for at least an hour, Arabic greetings and commands were pounded into our brains. I would practice at night before going to sleep. Our lead training instructor emphasized the importance by making us state phrases repeatedly throughout the day.
â€œOni imraâ€™ah, elbis shari fowq,â€ we said. It means â€œI am a woman wearing my hair pulled back.â€
It got to the point where I would forget the meaning of the sentence I was spitting out.
We learned of our destinations a day before our departure. We would be heading out to Rutbah. On the map, it seemed so far away from everything. It is a city in the far-western al-Anbar province and is a crossroads linking Baghdad to the Syrian border.
I packed light, bracing myself for the travel. Traveling with all my protective gear on and combat load is serious business in the heat but I couldnâ€™t complain yet because I still had a busy month or two ahead of me. I would wear my 30-pound flak jacket several weeks and for several hours throughout the day.
We arrived in Rutbah after a short helicopter ride and a few hours later convoyed to the traffic control point where weâ€™d be working.
My stomach turned when I saw a multitude of children run to the convoy to wave hello. It was just strange to me to see the large group of kids running around, like the entire city was their playground.
Apart from the children walking around, there were also sheep in the street, dozens of dirty dogs and trash everywhere. The trail of trash continued on to the traffic control point. The way it was caught on the barbed wires and lying against the protective barriers, it was like gaudy wallpaper for the perimeter.
The Lionesses we were relieving seemed excited to meet us, as they were ready to hand over responsibility of their post. They also gave us a tour of the area, showing us the mess hall, showers, an area recently damaged by mortars and finally, the female search area.
The post was nothing like what I thought it may look like, although I barely had an idea of what to expect. Anyways, I donâ€™t think anything would have made feel completely safe given our situation and unfamiliar surroundings.
â€œAll it would take is one,â€ a staff sergeant later put it. The sergeant on post spun us up on the way they did business there, the mood of the people they deal with and in return let us bombard her with questions.
Sometime between then and the morning, before falling asleep on our cots in a room made of sand-barrier walls, we decided our special word in case of an emergency at the post. If we ever felt threatened, our secret word to alert our partner would be â€˜pop tart.â€™
Itâ€™s what we had become tired of eating and what we didnâ€™t want the women to do â€“ pop.