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U.S. Army major reaches out to Iraqi women

Story Highlights

• Maj. Michele Spencer started organization, "The Journey of Courage"
• Organization provides forum for U.S. military women to connect with Iraqi women
• Spencer: "We want the same things that they do"
• Spencer hopes to foster more understanding between the two groups
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(CNN) -- The stories of Iraqi women are not often told. Their voices are muffled by the daily violence, by the media's reporting, by the clamor of American and Iraqi politicians.

But Maj. Michele Spencer of the U.S. Army Reserve is trying to change that. She and her organization, "The Journey of Courage," intend to provide a forum for Iraqi women and women in the American military to get to know each other.

"This whole project was a way for us to have something long-lasting and it was based on inspiring and educating and empowering all women, so that we can make a world that works for everyone," Spencer told CNN recently.

Among other things, the group meetings offer leadership training, and discussions on problem-solving, says Spencer, who is a medical service officer and mother of two.

"Through teaching them, and empowering them, and even mentoring them," she said, "They can grow."

Spencer said she first interacted with Iraqi women who were translators, interpreters and service workers on her military base, but later met women in the Iraqi military while she was working in the surgeon general's office in the Ministry of Defense. There, she worked with them on training issues and personnel issues.

"Having one-on-ones with them really opened my eyes," she said.

After four months of background work, Spencer unveiled her group in time for International Women's Day, on March 8.

On that day, Spencer and her Baghdad-based organization held a program called "Women with Voices." About 70 women -- 40 Iraqi and 30 American participated in the program, which Spencer said focused on women's strengths and potential.

Spencer says dialogue between Iraqi women and women in the U.S. military helps to foster more understanding between the two groups. Regardless of background and nationality, both groups are trying to achieve similar things as women, she said.

"We struggled too," Spencer said. "[We] try to balance careers, balance families, and we want the same things that they do."

"So for them to know that ... they look to us in a very different way."

One of the more significant challenges for "Journey of Courage" has been reaching out to women who live beyond Baghdad's protected "Green Zone," Spencer said. To combat that problem, Spencer intends to increase the organization's presence on the Internet. Through message boards and other Web initiatives, she said, they'll be able to maintain the cohesiveness of the group, even after Spencer and other military members return home.

"It's really going to take a lot of energy from the Iraqi women who are in the organization," she said.

But the women she's come to know are up to the challenge. "There is so much power in them," she said.

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Maj. Michele Spencer established a women's organization in Baghdad.




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