Hiking the brown rocky peaks of eastern Nangahar province, Army Spc. Kaitlyn Hancock inhaled the newness of her surroundings, enjoying the distance between her and her hometown. "Holy Sh-t!" she said to herself. "I'm from Alabama and I can't believe I'm doing these kinds of things."
Hancock was on a foot patrol with her squad because their oversized, heavily-armored vehicles could not fit on the narrow, unpaved mountain road. It was exactly where she wanted to be, Hancock said, when she imagined a military life away from her job at a fast food restaurant at age 16.
"I wanted to stand out," said the 20 year old. "I didn't want to be a typical female. I wanted to do it 100 percent. My recruiter said being an MP (military police) was as close to infantry as a female could get."
As a .50 gunner in an MRAP, Hancock has quickly become familiar with rocket-propelled grenade attacks and small arms fire. For many women in the military, the decision to become an MP is a calculated attempt to work in the most kinetic environments. The US military still excludes women from direct combat, but in Afghanistan and Iraq, MP's – male and female - often find themselves in those very situations.
For Capt. Rais Sanchez the decision to become an MP was similar to Hancock's, although she suggests it came from an immature place.
"I was 18 and being stupid wanted to be infantry and roll around in the dirt," said the 28-year-old from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Sanchez is the only female MP captain for the 4th ID Infantry Brigade Combat Team. In that capacity, she's in charge of more than 100 people with a focus on securing and developing five districts in Nangahar.
As she progresses in rank, Sanchez works less in the field and more in daily meetings with her male Afghan counterparts. Often the only woman in village meetings, she says the men see her as something in between a man and a woman.
"They view American women as the 'third gender,'" she said. "They hold respect for us. They treat us like men. This doesn't go for all Afghans, but for the majority of men."
At a recent meeting in Kalashahi, a village outside of Jalalabad, Sanchez sat on the floor alongside the male district leaders as they shared warm naan bread placed on the blanket in front of them. Through an interpreter, she explained the way payments should be distributed to local employees.
Abdul Malek, chief of the district association, said that he appreciated Sanchez's work. The 40-year-old father of 14 children, including nine girls, said he wished that women in Afghanistan had more opportunities like Sanchez.
"I like the women to go to school. In Pakistan, females go to school. In Turkey, women go to school," Malek said. But here, he said, women can rarely attend school.
For Sanchez, being one of the only females around forced her to examine how she would be perceived.
"I knew I was coming into an infantry brigade with mostly men who had never worked with women, so I had to up the bad-assery," she said. "I didn't want them looking at me like some dainty, high-maintenance kind of chick."
She said her personality helps. She rides a Honda CBR sport bike and has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do mixed martial arts. But while her Afghan counterpart Malek may have a progressive view on women's role in Afghanistan, Sanchez believes some of the stereotypes about women in the U.S. military are pervasive.
"Guys in the infantry, for example, a lot of them have pre-conceived ideas that women can't keep their legs closed and it's a temptation for the guys that takes away from mission focus," said Sanchez. She added that she feels there should be a "division of the sexes."
"If there's a woman [in the unit] it is different. With mixed units - teenagers, mixed privates, officers, sergeants – they can't control themselves. It's a problem that all-male units don't have to deal with," she said.
It's a sentiment echoed by some men in the field.
"When a woman is in the room, it's like Wild Kingdom. You know, with the lions roaring trying to get the lioness' attention," said one infantry soldier who did not want his name used. "The female soldier may not give anything, but every one of those males in the platoon thinks they are the one for her and will try to get to the front of the line."
Sgt. Erica Smith, 23, from New Hartford, N.Y., became an MP because she wanted excitement.
"I worked at a bank every day behind a desk. That was boring to me. I figured I needed something more in my life – and here came the Army," Smith said.
She said she joined the military after 9/11 and knew she would deploy. She wasn't afraid.
"I wanted that experience. I really couldn't wait. I wanted to experience it," she said. "I trained and trained and trained and you want to put that training to the test. Yes, I've been deployed. I know what it's like to deploy. It sucks. You go home and you appreciate things so much more once you go home."
In Iraq, she said, they were "blown up every day or mortared" or took RPG's or small arms. But she was quick to add that her role as an MP was vastly different from infantry.
"I would never want to shoot someone but if the threat was there, to save my life or my comrade's life, I would," she said. Like Sanchez, she said that women should have different roles.
"It's a totally different fight for MPs and infantry," she said. "They're front line, they're the first ones…it's a different world and I don't think females belong in that world."