Women at war

Two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and for the first time in its 229-year existence as an independent nation, America is fighting a war with a military machine that is dependent on women.

The women span a universe of backgrounds. There are women like Ranbir Kaur, a 19-year-old part-time college student from the obscure San Joaquin Valley town of Earlimart. By summer's end, Kaur expects to trade her textbooks for an M-16 rifle and head for Iraq.

And there are women like Elizabeth Vasquez, 49, who has been to Iraq and seen up close what war is like. These days she often sits on her Vallejo houseboat, sipping coffee, her eyes clouded with memories of things she'd rather forget.

More than 200,000 women are on active duty in the U.S. armed services and an additional 150,000 serve in the National Guard and Reserves - an estimated 100,000 of them have served in the Iraq combat theater so far. Women make up 19 percent of the Navy, 15 percent of the Army, 20 percent of the Air Force and 24 percent of the Army Reserve.

In 2002, they constituted 17 percent of those recruited to active duty. By 2010, that figure is expected to reach 30 percent.

"There's no going back," said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and director of the Women's Research and Education Institute, a nonprofit Washington-based think tank that studies women's issues. "If you tried to pull women out of the equation, this country could not fight a war."

But America's new dual-gender formula for fighting has raised numerous combat zone issues that are rapidly becoming home-front problems:

* Every branch of the military has been shamed over the past two years by a deluge of reports of women being sexually assaulted or harassed by their male counterparts while in the combat zone. Stung by the scandals, the Pentagon has begun to respond - in part by coming up with its first formal definition of sexual assault and harassment.

* Returning female vets are bringing back wounded minds, beset by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an illness that affects women at twice the rate of men. Health experts fear an avalanche of cases among female vets will smother the military health care system.

* Tens of thousands of children are struggling to cope while Mom goes to war - and sometimes Dad too. The kids are casualties of rules promulgated when the military actively discouraged mothers from staying in uniform and long before the military was so dependent on women.

The cumulative effect, according to many of the dozens of female soldiers interviewed by The Bee, is that the male-dominated military has failed to adapt to a truly integrated two-gender force.

"You cannot integrate halfway or part of the way," said Erin Solaro, a former Army Reserve officer and military historian.

"Yes, there are differences between men and women ... , (but) why on earth would you discourage anybody from entering military service by offering them a second-class experience?"

While the Pentagon struggles to solve the current problems, and with its hand forced by the need for more personnel as a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department is inching toward removal of the final - and most controversial - obstacle to women's full integration into the military work force: the ban on ground combat service.

"The nature of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women have had to pick up weapons and fight side by side with men, has made them colleagues in a way they never have been before," said Manning, who served 25 years in the Navy.

"The experience of what's going on over there will drive a whole rethinking of what should or shouldn't be off-limits for women."

Escaping a small town

It was the limits of life in a comatose San Joaquin Valley farm town that spurred Ranbir Kaur to join the California National Guard in late 2002, two days after her 17th birthday and more than a year before she graduated from Delano High. That, and the $3,000 bonus for enlisting.

The daughter of Sikh grape farmers, Kaur emigrated at age 7 from India to the Bay Area, then moved to Earlimart, a dusty burg of 6,600, about 40 miles from Bakersfield, 70 miles from Fresno and light-years from the kind of things that would interest most teenagers.

The only restaurants in town are a mom-and-pop burger joint and a Mexican bakery that sells tortas and burritos. The high school is in Delano, eight miles away. There is no movie theater, no bowling alley, no nightspot.

"There's nothing to do here," says Diana Sinobago, 18, who joined the Guard a year after Kaur, when the enlistment bonus had doubled to $6,000.

Nor is there much future for anyone who wants to be something other than a farmer or an employee of one of the area's two state prisons.

"Let's put it this way," Delano High career counselor Joanne Connelly said of local vocational possibilities. "We have a lot of fast food."

The paucity of jobs has attracted an abundance of military recruiters.

"The recruiters are here on an almost daily basis," said Jim Beltran, the high school's dean of students. The kids, he said, "are looking for an out. They're looking for a place to go."

Ten girls and four boys were recruited from Kaur's graduating class of 650. Three of the girls are in Kaur's Guard unit, the 349th Quartermaster Company.

A contributing factor, Connelly said, was Kaur's infectious enthusiasm about joining up.

"Ranbir wasn't pushy," the counselor said. "She didn't ask like, 'Do you want to join?' The girls were like, 'Wow, you did that?' She'd just tell it like it was. It was like the girls didn't realize they had this option."

Kaur, who works as a clerk in a doctor's office and studies at Bakersfield College while she waits to be deployed to Iraq, wasn't motivated solely by patriotism.

"It's going lead to a lot more opportunities in life," she says as she uses a thin metal wire to push a cleaning cloth down the barrel of her M-16 rifle, then struggles to reassemble the weapon, during training at Camp San Luis Obispo. She will serve as a supply clerk in Iraq.

Kaur and her high school classmate Melanie Zapata "want to be really good nurses," they say in unison, and their hitches in the Guard will help pay for college.

Besides, the military is exposing the girls to people and places they might never have encountered.

"Two girls from Vallejo sleep over there," Zapata says, pointing to two cots on the other side of the narrow barracks as if they were part of a national monument.

"Before we got here, we didn't even know there was a Vallejo."

For many women, joining the military offers enticements beyond escaping from places like Earlimart or meeting people from Vallejo.

Unlike the private sector, men and women of equal rank in the military receive equal pay and benefits. More than 90 percent of all the job categories in the Army, Navy and Air Force now are open to women. And between 15 percent and 16 percent of women in the military are officers, the same proportion as men.

"The military is one of the best things I've ever done," said Cynthia Shattuck, a 29-year-old Sacramento woman who joined the Navy, then the National Guard, nine years ago. "It allows me to feel I'm serving a greater purpose than just myself."

For many women, the tough conditions of living and working in a combat zone instilled a sense of empowerment. Sgt. Rebecca Humbard, 40, a 20-year National Guard veteran from Antioch, had always been afraid to get a driver's license because of memories of an accident from her teens. Returning home after driving forklifts and other heavy equipment in Iraq, however, she got her first California driver's license.

"My life has changed immensely," the Antioch woman said. "I'm more independent."

But the military's increasing reliance on Reserve and National Guard troops for foreign operations, coupled with the vagaries of modern warfare, has given women an additional opportunity in the current conflict: the chance to be shot.

From makeup to M-16s

There was little chance of that when Elizabeth Vasquez joined the Army. Women wore uniforms with lime-green wraparound skirts, and took lessons in makeup and etiquette. Vasquez wasn't even allowed to touch a weapon during the first three years of her enlistment.

"I had a drill instructor," the 49-year-old Vallejo woman recalls, "who used to sing us to sleep at night."

That was 1976. The all-volunteer Army was 3 years old. The country's military academies had just been opened to women. And less than 5 percent of the active-duty armed forces was female.

A few changes have occurred since then.

Vasquez retired last year from the California National Guard, after a tour in Iraq, where women have made up from 10 percent to 15 percent of the U.S. military personnel in the combat theater.

Over there, wraparound skirts gave way to bulky suits for protection against potential chemical weapons attacks. Etiquette lessons were abandoned in favor of learning to build toilets from 50-gallon oil drums. And weapons were plentiful, from the M-16 that was Vasquez's constant companion to the mortar rounds raining down on her camp several times a day.

"We'd have to sit in the bunkers for hours because of the mortars," she said.

No one sang her to sleep.

Vasquez is a living embodiment of women's evolution in uniform. Although thousands of women served in earlier wars, their roles were strictly limited.

With the end of the draft in 1973, American military forces stepped up efforts to recruit women by making more career opportunities available to them.

Following the Persian Gulf War, in which nearly 41,000 women served and 16 were killed, the Clinton administration and Congress opened tens of thousands of ground support jobs in the Army and Marines to women. Women were allowed to fly combat aircraft and serve on most ships.

But women were deemed unfit for some combat roles because they lacked upper body strength, and because it was assumed their presence might create tensions or damage morale in fighting units.

Under current federal law and military regulations, women are barred from ground combat groups such as the infantry; tank, artillery and armored vehicle units; coastal patrol boats and submarines; and special operations units such as Army Rangers and Navy SEALS.

"There's no change of policy as far as I'm concerned," President Bush said in mid-January. "No women in combat."

There are indications, however, that the Pentagon is less steadfast than its commander-in-chief about maintaining the status quo.

In February, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division acknowledged it has assigned women to units in Iraq that directly support combat troops by providing food, equipment maintenance and other services.

The process, called "collocation" - literally to place side by side - is at odds with an 11-year-old Army policy that bans women from serving in front-line support groups.

"This is an incremental change that will gradually lead to a more direct deployment of women in combat," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness - a nonpartisan group focused on military personnel - and a critic of what she considers an end run. "It is a way of implementing a very bad policy, which is to weaken these units' fighting ability, in order to make some sort of political statement."

Pentagon analysts, however, say modifying women-in-combat rules is based more on pragmatism than politics.

In a report circulated among commanders last summer, analysts said the Army lacked enough male soldiers with the right skills to fill all the openings in combat support units.

A late November briefing on the same subject was more succinct:

"The way ahead: rewrite/eliminate the Army collocation policy."

Call it combat

As in all wars, there is official military policy, and there is reality, and sometimes there is a chasm between the two.

While think-tank directors and Pentagon analysts debate the efficacy of women in combat, women who have been to Iraq tend to laugh at the question. Of the 33 women killed so far in the combat theater, 23 died in combat situations.

"The entire country is a combat zone," said Vasquez, adding that every convoy mission she was on took hostile fire.

"We had a gun truck on every run with a machine gunner sitting half in and half out of the top of the Humvee," she said. "And sometimes those gunners were women.

"When we convoyed, the first thing you did when you pulled over was get out and 'pull' a perimeter. Everybody had a section. You got out and you loaded your weapon and you kept people away.

"That may not be hand-to-hand combat, but if it isn't combat, I don't know what is."

It certainly seemed like combat to National Guard Sgt. Brenda Monroe, 40, of Natomas, who spent a year in Iraq.

"You're not generally told as a female that you will be in that type of situation where you are in harm's way directly," Monroe said. "I never dreamed that I would wake up every night and have to run to a bunker and take cover because we were being attacked or under direct fire."

Even jobs like delivering gas were fraught with peril.

"They were popping IEDs (an acronym for "improvised explosive devices," or homemade bombs) all the time," said Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Saucedo of Fairfield, 46, who served as a platoon leader in Iraq, refueling convoys and riding in 15,000-gallon fuel tanker trucks. On one mission, the windshield of the truck she was in was shot out.

"We had intel (intelligence), so we knew how many IEDs were out there," she said. "And even then we had these women who would say, 'I'll go.' It taught me to have faith in their abilities."

Shouldering the burden

It isn't blind faith, however. Saucedo makes sure women can do their part. During physical training at Camp San Luis Obispo, after her return from Iraq, several of the new women in Saucedo's unit, including one of the teens from Earlimart, fail a sit-up test.

Saucedo counsels them to work on increasing their strength so they can shoulder the 40-pound packs of gear - including bulletproof vests and chemical protection suits - that soldiers carry on overnight missions in Iraq.

"The men won't carry them for you," she says.

Physical training is only part of the Iraq-bound soldiers' education. There is, for example, weapons training.

In a clapboard building with bars over the mud-streaked windows, 15 women take apart, clean and reassemble their M-16s. They use Q-tips and brushes, following their instructor's directions.

"I'm just scared when the gun goes off," says Kaur, the teen from Earlimart. "The noise, it's like, 'Whoa! Is that coming at me, or is it going to hit someone else?' "

This intricate indoor training followed eight hours spent on their bellies in 3-inch-deep mud, shooting at paper targets stapled to wooden boards.

"The longer we stay out here, the better we get," a drill sergeant yelled.

Training weekends also offer education about personal health and hygiene, both the military version and the civilian version.

"Females should be allowed time to urinate on a regular basis, especially since they have to remove much of their gear and require more time than men," says the Army's "Guide to Female Soldier Readiness."

In reality, female vets from Iraq tell the newbies, learn to pee in water bottles with the tops cut off, because the truck convoy isn't going to stop in ambush country for a woman to urinate. And shed any qualms about cleaning yourself up in front of men.

"Personal hygiene for women was very, very important over there," says Humbard, the National Guard sergeant from Antioch, who endured two urinary tract infections in Iraq.

Combat theater medical facilities were not adequately equipped for women, Humbard said. The medical staff had no equipment to run cultures of women's vaginal and urinary tract infections. Antibiotics were simply handed out in hopes that the women's symptoms were the result of common infections.

In the end, it will likely be these kinds of experiences, rather than the training and advance warnings, that could help determine whether women opt for careers in the military.

Recruitment on the rise

Back when Elizabeth Vasquez was a new recruit, the U.S. military didn't much care if women stayed in uniform. In fact, says a Department of Defense report released last March, military women who married in the 1970s were encouraged to quit.

That, however, was then. Following the end of the Cold War, the United States began paring back its armed forces, to where it now has to rely on National Guard and reservists to wage war.

Absent a draft, the various services have stepped up their recruitment of women. At Delano High, where the career center is festooned with pro-military posters and stickers, the girls' "eyes pop out of their heads when a recruiter talks to them," according to counselor Connelly. "The girls think that the military is a man's career."

Vasquez does too. After seven years in the regular Army and seven more in the Reserve, Vasquez left the military. Her experience in Iraq was enough to convince her that because of a lingering culture of what she called "sheer sexism," men and women shouldn't serve in the same units.

"I think we have every right and capability to be on the front lines," she said. "But you need that sense of unity, and I don't think it's possible in integrated units.

"It's hard to do your job to your fullest capability when you're thought of as less than what I wanted to be - a soldier."

Gender issues linger

Military officials acknowledge that to retain women like Vasquez and attract more women like Kaur, they will have to tackle such issues as sexual assault and harassment, the lack of exemptions from foreign deployments for women with children and the ban on women from combat roles.

For now, Kaur is ambivalent about her escape route from Earlimart. While sitting at home with her family, Kaur says she thinks she'll quit the military after she gets married.

"I need to take care of my family," she says, "instead of being deployed and having (my children) raised by someone else."

But while cleaning her weapon during a training session, she decides going to war with her high school buddies will be an "awesome" experience to have together.

"And then come back alive together," she says. "That would be the best thing."


At 5-foot-8, she was big for her gender. She was also strong from years as an indentured servant, so it wasn't tough for 21-year-old Deborah Sampson to disguise herself as a man in May 1782 and join Gen. George Washington's Continental Army as "Robert Shertluff."

Sampson fought with distinction in several battles near West Point, N.Y. In one she suffered a sword cut to the head, and in another, took a musket ball in the thigh. To preserve her secret, Sampson removed the slug herself. But a bout of fever sent her to a Philadelphia hospital, where a doctor discovered her secret. She was discharged with a personal note from Washington, and enough money to get home.

In 1792, the state of Massachusetts paid her back wages. And in 1804, with the help of her friend Paul Revere, Sampson won a veteran's pension from Congress. Sampson died in 1827 after a postwar career as a teacher and lecturer. Her pension was transferred to her husband and children, and in 1983, she was designated "an official heroine of the state of Massachusetts."

by Pamela Martineau and Steve Wiegand,
© Sacramento Bee (California)
Posted 2005-03-07 20:10:00.0


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