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Marine Corps Lieutenant shares her view of Afghanistan

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Lt Fakes USMC
ST. LOUIS — As a young girl growing up in University City, Lydia Fakes frequented Vintage Vinyl in the Loop and played attacker on the lacrosse team at St. Joseph’s Academy, a private, Roman Catholic all-girl’s high school in Frontenac. Photo: US Marine Corps

Her parents, who run a small accounting firm, said their daughter always had a knack for figuring things out on her own since being born premature, tiny.

After high school, Fakes graduated from a small liberal arts college on the East Coast, then law school in New Orleans. She became a member of the Missouri Bar in 2012.

But law wasn’t fulfilling enough. Instead, Fakes joined the Marines.

Unlike more than half of the women in her class, she completed officer candidate school, then went on to 6 months of basic infantry officer training. While the is the only military branch that still has gender-segregated boot camp, lieutenants train together.

“Gender does not matter,” said 1st Lt. Fakes, 29, a ground combat logistics officer. “Mission accomplishment matters.”

Today, she’s one of 9,800 U.S. service members in Afghanistan tasked to “train, advise and assist.” American troop levels are expected to remain steady in that role in 2016, then drop to 5,500 by 2017.

After about a month in the country, she’s experienced at being a female officer in a male-dominated country. At 5 feet 3 inches tall and 110 pounds, she recently oversaw security for a walk through Kabul. The group was headed to a meeting to discuss a shipment of night vision goggles for the Afghan military.

The Post-Dispatch caught up with Fakes last week by telephone and email:

How did you end up going from a private school in Frontenac to the Marines?

I always knew I was destined for a different path. Military service was always in the back of my mind throughout my studies. The doesn’t recruit for its officers. You have to find them. I interviewed with some of the other service branches and it felt like working for any other law firm. As soon as I walked through the door of the and started training, I knew that I had made the right choice. I wanted the chance to lead Marines and have the opportunity to serve in challenging environments.

Is it hard to be a woman in that environment?

It’s not easy being a Marine, regardless of gender and size. As an officer, your Marines expect the best from you, and physical ability is one thing that you have to be able to deliver. Most Marines don’t see gender, they see another Marine. It is a family unlike anything I have ever known, and I love every second of it.

You made a documentary in college about the evolution of camping in America. What inspired that?

I grew up camping and spending time in the woods. It helped me in my military training. My family has a cabin near Salem, Mo., on the Current River, where we spend most weekends. We kayak, fish and hike. There is no running water or electricity there, and it has become our oasis from the city.

Does anyone in your family have a military background?

My grandfather, Jim Fakes, is a World War II Veteran and served in the Army. He was too young to enlist but fudged some of his paperwork. I like to think I carry some of his courage with me.

In your current job, how much direct contact do you have with Afghans?

I have daily interaction with Afghans. I work in the Security Assistance Office that helps procure equipment, gear, uniforms and training programs for the Afghan Security Forces. We work very closely in assisting and advising the Afghans on a variety of programs and topics. Once that equipment comes into the country, we have to ensure it gets to the correct units and locations. I deal in the tactical side to all moves we make outside the wire and the tactical training of all personnel. I will have a successful tour here if I ensure my personnel are well trained and get everyone home safely. I go on every movement outside the wire, escorting them to meetings and inventories.

What are your impressions of Afghanistan so far?

Kabul, situated inside the mountains, is breathtakingly beautiful. Rural areas outside the city are very harsh living areas. We see people begging in the middle of the road. One woman tried to give me her baby one day. I’ve seen lawlessness in the streets and “justice” being done to someone tied to a street light while three other men beat him in an open market. Some days are much better than others. We have weekly interactions with officials from the Ministries of Defense and the Interior. Overall, the people are family-focused and extremely caring people. The Afghans we work with risk their lives just to come to work every day. They cannot tell their families or friends where they work or what they do for fear of repercussions for working for the “Americans.”

The is one thing. How is it working within the male-dominated culture of Afghanistan?

As a female, some men will not shake my hand, but most do. They put their right hand over their hearts to greet me if they will not shake my hand. I do not take offense at all and try to respect their customs and courtesies. I mirror them and return the greeting by putting my right hand over my heart. They do have some female officers in the Afghan National Army. I have not met any yet, but I have heard of them. I know a few Dari greetings that get me through most interactions here. Most Afghans we work with are very used to working with U.S. military females.

Still, since I am not married yet, they jokingly try to find me a husband. Some of the Afghans could not pronounce my first name well, and have since been calling me Lyla, which is a famous name here, akin to the character of Juliet in our story of Romeo and Juliet.

The U.S. mission is now to train, advise, assist Afghan security. How do you see the advising effort going?

It seems to be going well, from my perspective. It is no easy task to learn a completely different method of doing business, but especially in our work with the Ministry of Interior, we have seen our Afghan brothers make huge strides in taking the reins and taking the responsibilities head on.

There have been more attacks in Kabul lately at embassies and other places. Do you feel more or less secure?

There is an inherent risk to being forward deployed in Afghanistan, but I feel very safe on our base. When outside the wire, we take every precaution and train very hard to be able to react to any situation. However, there are still a lot of people that wish to do Americans and coalition forces harm in this city.

It’s been reported that the role of ISIS is starting to have more of an effect on stability in certain parts of Afghanistan. Has this had an impact on the U.S. mission?

To my knowledge, it has not affected our mission here in Kabul. We, currently, are more concerned with other groups operating in the area.

Do Afghans want U.S. troops there?

It really depends upon whom you are speaking to. There are some Afghans who want us to stay and help in the way we did years ago, and some who are ready for us to leave. For the most part, our work has become part of their own battle rhythm here. Our presence is normal to most people in Kabul. We still have a lot of opportunities to help here.

What do you hope to gain from this deployment experience?

To learn about the Afghan culture, to work closely with our Afghan and coalition brothers and sisters, and to do my job as the executive officer, which is to ensure all of the Security Assistance Office personnel are well trained, prepared and that every movement we make is as safe as possible.

Questions and answers have been edited for space.

Jesse Bogan, @jessebogan on Twitter

(c)2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, www.stltoday.com

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