Cows May Provide Hope To Iraqi Widows In Fallujah

U.S. Marines are trying a new tactic in Fallujah: cattle. They're providing dairy cows to 50 women widowed in the past few years of fighting. The hope is that the cows will provide a steady source of income for the women. Marine Maj. Meredith Brown and State Department worker Jennifer Vitela talk to host Guy Raz about the project.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. In Iraq, in the area around Fallujah, U.S. marines have introduced a secret weapon in the battle for hearts and minds, a bovine battalion. The marines have recently bought 50 dairy cows for 50 Iraqi women whose husbands have been killed in the fighting there over the past few years. The idea: to help the women become self-sufficient and to keep them from possibly joining insurgent groups. Marine Major Meredith Brown helped put together the cows to widows program, and she's on the line now from the Ramadi area. Thanks for joining us, Major.

Major MEREDITH BROWN (U.S. Marines): Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: And I understand you're there with a civilian colleague who's known as the cow whisperer? Jennifer Vitela, welcome to you, as well.

Ms. JENNIFER VITELA (U.S. State Department Employee): Oh, thank you, Guy. We're happy to be here with you.

RAZ: So, Major Brown, before you left for Iraq, did the military train you how to wrangle livestock?

Maj. BROWN: No, they didn't. They taught me how to do the things that Marines traditionally do, and this is not a traditional role for Marines. But it came naturally because of the overall training that we get.

RAZ: How did this program get started?

Maj. BROWN: Well, I tell you, Guy. This is a project for women by women through women. I was actually approached by two women - one who is a provincial council member which is equivalent to our state legislature, and one who is a city council member in Fallujah - and they said that they had this grand idea to empower women by starting a dairy products factory. First, they wanted to buy cows for local widows, so they would have a milk source for the factory.

RAZ: And how did you get the cows?

Maj. BROWN: We went to a livestock exchange, which doesn't look anything like a livestock exchange. It was more like a parking lot with a lot of animals. And we had a veterinarian, American veterinarian with us, and he began assessing cows and calling out prices. And the owners agreed to the prices. And so that was the first day. And the second day, I'll let Jennifer tell you about because this is when she became the cow whisperer.

Ms. VITELA: Well, when we were at the livestock exchange, we weren't able to buy all the cows that we wanted. And so the second day, we ended up in an abandoned parking lot off the side of a road. We didn't know what to expect. Then we pulled up, and there were a couple of very beat-up vehicles and about 36 cows for us to examine. I knew somebody needed to handle the cows for the veterinarian to examine them, and I thought there was no better way to be a part of the project than just to rope them up myself and chase them down and do anything I could to help the veterinarian get his job done, so we could get out with our 50 cows.

RAZ: And Jennifer Vitela, you work for the U.S. State Department there. Do you have any experience with dairy farms? Do you come from a dairy farm?

Ms. VITELA: Actually, I come from Newport Beach, and we don't have any dairy farms there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: How about you Major Brown?

Maj. BROWN: Well, I am from rural Louisiana, but not of the dairy cow sort.

RAZ: And so most of these women live in rural parts of Anbar province. And how have they responded to receiving a cow?

Maj. BROWN: They've been quite excited about it. I've heard stories from the two ladies who proposed the idea that the widows are doing well, the cows are doing well, the cooperative is working quite well, and I think it's going to be successful.

RAZ: So have either of you had a chance to try the milk?

Maj. BROWN: Well, I tell you, we are actually in discussions with Land O'Lakes.

RAZ: Land O'Lakes, the dairy company here in the U.S.

Maj. BROWN: That's correct. Discussion about helping to develop a new collection facility. And so once they bring in the machinery to homogenize and pasteurize the milk, I'll be more than happy to try it.

RAZ: But until then you're going to probably just try to stay safe.

Maj. BROWN: Take a pass, yes.

RAZ: Major Meredith Brown is assigned to the Marines' outreach program for women in Anbar province, Iraq. She works on the cows for widows project with Jennifer Vitela, who is a civilian working for the State Department. She's also known as the cow whisperer. Ladies, thanks to you both.

Ms. VITELA: Thank you, Guy.

Maj. BROWN: Thank you, Guy. It's been a pleasure.

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