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Women at Arms -Series - NY Times

Yrys

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G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier, August 15, 2009

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As the convoy rumbled up the road in Iraq, Specialist Veronica Alfaro
was struck by the beauty of fireflies dancing in the night. Then she
heard the unmistakable pinging of tracer rounds and, in a Baghdad
moment, realized the insects were illuminated bullets.

She jumped from behind the wheel of her gun truck, grabbed her
medical bag and sprinted 50 yards to a stalled civilian truck. On the
way, bullets kicked up dust near her feet. She pulled the badly
wounded driver to the ground and got to work.

Despite her best efforts, the driver died, but her heroism that
January night last year earned Specialist Alfaro a Bronze Star
for valor. She had already received a combat action badge for
fending off insurgents as a machine gunner.

“I did everything there,” Ms. Alfaro, 25, said of her time in Iraq.
“I gunned. I drove. I ran as a truck commander. And underneath
it all, I was a medic.”

Before 2001, America’s military women had rarely seen ground
combat. Their jobs kept them mostly away from enemy lines,
as military policy dictates. But the Afghanistan and Iraq wars,
often fought in marketplaces and alleyways, have changed that.
In both countries, women have repeatedly proved their mettle in
combat. The number of high-ranking women and women who
command all-male units has climbed considerably along with their
status in the military.

“Iraq has advanced the cause of full integration for women in the
Army by leaps and bounds,” said Peter R. Mansoor, a retired Army
colonel who served as executive officer to Gen. David H. Petraeus
while he was the top American commander in Iraq. “They have
earned the confidence and respect of male colleagues.”

Their success, widely known in the military, remains largely hidden
from public view. In part, this is because their most challenging work
is often the result of a quiet circumvention of military policy. Women
are barred from joining combat branches like the infantry, armor,
Special Forces and most field artillery units and from doing support
jobs while living with those smaller units. Women can lead some male
troops into combat as officers, but they cannot serve with them in
battle. Yet, over and over, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army commanders
have resorted to bureaucratic trickery when they needed more soldiers
for crucial jobs, like bomb disposal and intelligence. On paper, for instance,
women have been “attached” to a combat unit rather than “assigned.”

This quiet change has not come seamlessly — and it has altered military
culture on the battlefield in ways large and small. Women need separate
bunks and bathrooms. They face sexual discrimination and rape, and
counselors and rape kits are now common in war zones. Commanders
also confront a new reality: that soldiers have sex, and some will be
evacuated because they are pregnant.

Nonetheless, as soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women have
done nearly as much in battle as their male counterparts: patrolled streets
with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, disposed of explosives,
and driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads. They have proved indispensable
in their ability to interact with and search Iraqi and Afghan women for
weapons, a job men cannot do for cultural reasons. The Marine Corps has
created revolving units — “lionesses” — dedicated to just this task. A small
number of women have even conducted raids, engaging the enemy directly
in total disregard of existing policies.

Many experts, including David W. Barno, a retired lieutenant general who
commanded forces in Afghanistan; Dr. Mansoor, who now teaches military
history at Ohio State University; and John A. Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel
who helped write the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, say it is only
a matter of time before regulations that have restricted women’s participation
in war will be adjusted to meet the reality forged over the last eight years.

The Marine Corps, which is overwhelmingly male and designed for combat, recently
opened two more categories of intelligence jobs to women, recognizing the value of
their work in Iraq and Afghanistan. In gradually admitting women to combat, the
United States will be catching up to the rest of the world. More than a dozen countries
allow women in some or all ground combat occupations. Among those pushing
boundaries most aggressively is Canada, which has recruited women for the infantry
and sent them to Afghanistan.

But the United States military may well be steps ahead of Congress, where opening
ground combat jobs to women has met deep resistance in the past. Elaine Donnelly,
president of the Center for Military Readiness, a group that opposes fully integrating
women into the Army, said women were doing these jobs with no debate and no
Congressional approval.

“I fault the Pentagon for not being straight with uniformed women,” said Ms. Donnelly,
who supported unsuccessful efforts by some in Congress in 2005 to restrict women’s
roles in these wars. “It’s an ‘anything goes’ situation.” Poll numbers, however, show
that a majority of the public supports allowing women to do more on the battlefield.
Fifty-three percent of the respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll in July,
said they would favor permitting women to “join combat units, where they would be
directly involved in the ground fighting.” The successful experiences of military women
in Iraq and Afghanistan are being used to bolster the efforts of groups who favor letting
gay soldiers serve openly. Those opposed to such change say that permitting service
members to state their sexual orientation would disrupt the tight cohesion of a unit
and lead to harassment and sexual liaisons — arguments also used against allowing
women to serve alongside men. But women in Iraq and Afghanistan have debunked
many of those fears.

“They made it work with women, which is more complicated in some ways, with sex-
segregated facilities and new physical training standards,” said David Stacy, a lobbyist
with the Human Rights Campaign, which works for gay equality. “If the military could
make that work with good discipline and order, certainly integrating open service of gay
and lesbians is within their capability. ”

From Necessity, Opportunity

No one envisioned that Afghanistan and Iraq would elevate the status of women in the
armed forces. But the Iraq insurgency obliterated conventional battle lines. The fight was
on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated,
the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting.
Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them
altogether. “We literally could not have fought this war without women,” said Dr. Nagl,
who is now president of the Center for a New American Security, a military research
institution in Washington.

Of the two million Americans who have fought in these wars since 2001, more than
220,000 of them, or 11 percent, have been women. Like men, some women have
come home bearing the mental and physical scars of bombs and bullets, loss and killing.
Women who are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars appear to suffer rates of
post-traumatic stress disorder comparable to those of men, a recent study showed.
Men still make up the vast majority of the 5,000 war deaths since 2001; nearly 4,000
have been killed by enemy action But 121 women have also died, 66 killed in combat.
The rest died in nonhostile action, which includes accidents, illness, suicide and friendly
fire. And 620 women have been wounded.

Despite longstanding fears about how the public would react to women coming home in
coffins, Americans have responded to their deaths and injuries no differently than to
those of male casualties, analysts say. That is a reflection of changing social mores but
also a result of the growing number of women — more than 356,000 today — who serve
in the armed forces, including the Reserves and the National Guard, 16 percent of the total.
Over all, women say the gains they made in Iraq and Afghanistan have overshadowed the
challenges they faced in a combat zone.

“As horrible as this war has been, I fully believe it has given women so many opportunities
in the military,” said Linsay Rousseau Burnett, who was one of the first women to serve as a
communication specialist with a brigade combat team in Iraq. “Before, they didn’t have the
option.”

Although women make up only 6 percent of the top military ranks, these war years have
ushered in a series of notable promotions. In 2008, 57 women were serving as generals
and admirals in the active-duty military, more than double the number a decade earlier.
Last year, Ann E. Dunwoody was the first woman to become a four-star Army general,
the highest rank in today’s military and a significant milestone for women. And many
more women now lead all-male combat troops into battle. The Army does not keep
complete statistics on the sex of soldiers who receive medals and tracks only active-
duty soldiers. But two women have been awarded Silver Stars, one of the military’s
highest honors. Many more women have been awarded medals for valor, the statistics
show.

To be sure, not all women in the military embrace the idea of going into combat. Like
men, a few do what they can to try to get out of deployments. Military women and
commanders say some women have timed their pregnancies to avoid deploying or
have gotten pregnant in Iraq so they would be sent home. The Army declined to
release numbers on how many women have been evacuated from a war zone for
pregnancy. In addition to the dangers, military life is grueling in other ways, especially
for mothers juggling parenting and the demands of the military, which require long
absences from home. And while the military is doing more to address the threat of
sexual harassment and rape, it remains a persistent problem.

Bending Rules, Shifting Views

The rules governing what jobs military women can hold often seem contradictory or
muddled. Women, for instance, can serve as machine gunners on Humvees but cannot
operate Bradleys, the Army’s armored fighting vehicle. They can work with some long-
range artillery but not short-range ones. Women can walk Iraq’s dangerous streets as
members of the military police but not as members of the infantry. And, they can lead
combat engineers in war zones as officers, but cannot serve among them. This was the
case for Maj. Kellie McCoy, 34, a wisp of an officer who is just over five feet tall. As a
captain in 2003 and 2004, she served as the first female engineer company commander
in the 82nd Airborne Division and led a platoon of combat engineers in Iraq.

On Sept. 14, 2003, her four-vehicle convoy drove into an ambush. It was attacked by
multiple roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. Three soldiers
were wounded in the ambush. As one of the wounded stood in the middle of the road,
bloody and in shock, Major McCoy ran through enemy fire to get him, discharging her
M4 as she led him back to her vehicle. Then, she and the others returned to the “kill
zone” to rescue the remaining soldiers. Insurgents shot at them from 15 feet away.
But eventually, all 12 soldiers piled into one four-seat Humvee and sped away.

Major McCoy received a Bronze Star for valor and, most important for her, the admiration
of her troops. “I think my actions cemented their respect for me,” she wrote in an e-mail
message from Iraq. “I worked hard to earn their respect.” As an officer, Major McCoy’s
assignment followed both the letter and the spirit of the regulations.

But in other cases, the rules were bent to get women into combat positions.

In 2004 and 2005, Michael A. Baumann, now a retired lieutenant colonel, commanded
30 enlisted women and 6 female officers as part of a unit patrolling in the Rashid district
of Baghdad, an extremely dangerous area at the time. On paper, he followed military policy.
The women were technically assigned to a separate chemical company of the division. In
reality, they were core members of his field artillery battalion. Mr. Baumann said the women
trained and fought alongside his male soldiers. Everyone from Mr. Baumann’s commanders
to the commanding general knew their true function, he said.

“We had to take everybody,” said Mr. Baumann, 46, who wrote a book about his time in Iraq
called “Adjust Fire: Transforming to Win in Iraq.” “Nobody could be spared to do something like
support.” Brought up as an old-school Army warrior, Mr. Baumann said he had seriously doubted
that women could physically handle infantry duties, citing the weight of the armor and the gear,
the heat of Baghdad and the harshness of combat. “I found out differently,” said Mr. Baumann,
now chief financial officer for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “Not only could they handle it,
but in the same way as males. I would go out on patrols every single day with my battalion. I
was with them. I was next to them. I saw with my own eyes. I had full trust and confidence in
their abilities.”

Mr. Baumann’s experience rings true to many men who have commanded women in Iraq. More
than anything, it is seeing women perform under fire that has changed attitudes. But some
experts say the hostility toward women in the military was fading on its own. Many young men
today have grown up around female athletes, tough sisters and successful women. As the
experience of Iraq and Afghanistan sinks in, some experts and military officers believe that
women should be allowed to join all-male combat units in phases (so long as job-specific physical
exams are created to test the abilities of men and women).

For New Warfare, New Roles

War is different today, they say. Technology has changed the way some of these jobs are done,
making them more mechanized and less strength-dependent. Warfare in Iraq involves a lot more
driving than walking. What is more, not all combat jobs are the same. Handling field artillery or
working in Bradleys, for example, are jobs more suited to some women than light infantry duties,
which can require carrying heavy packs for miles. Still, most women in the military express little,
if any, desire to join the grueling, testosterone-laden light infantry. But some say they are interested
in artillery and armor.

Any change to the policy would require Congressional approval, which lawmakers say is unlikely in
the middle of two wars. But women in the military and their allies want their performance in combat
to count for something. “We have to acknowledge it because the military is like any other corporation,”
said Representative Loretta Sanchez, Democrat of California and the senior woman on the House Armed
Services Committee. “If you are not on the front lines doing what is the main purpose of your existence,
then you won’t be viewed as someone who can command.”

Military women said they were encouraged by the words of Representative John M. McHugh, the nominee
for Army secretary, who just four years ago supported a failed push in Congress to restrict the role of women
in combat zones. At his Senate hearing in July, Mr. McHugh, Republican of New York, sought to allay concern.
“Women in uniform today are not just invaluable,” he said, “they’re irreplaceable.” He added that he would
look to expand the number of jobs available to them. In Mr. Baumann’s view, the reality on the ground long
ago outpaced the debate.

“We have crossed that line in Iraq,” he said. “Debate it all you want folks, but the military is going to do what
the military needs to do. And they are needing to put women in combat.”
 

Yrys

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Living and Fighting Alongside Men, and Fitting In, August 16, 2009

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, Iraq — There is no mistaking that this dusty,
gravel-strewn camp northeast of Baghdad is anything other than a combat outpost in
a still-hostile land. And there is no mistaking that women in uniform have had a
transformative effect on it. They have their own quarters, boxy trailers called CHUs
(the military’s acronym for containerized housing units, pronounced “chews”). There
are women’s bathrooms and showers, alongside the men’s. Married couples live
together. The base’s clinic treats gynecological problems and has, alongside the
equipment needed to treat the trauma of modern warfare, an ultrasound machine.

Opponents of integrating women in combat zones long feared that sex would mean
the end of American military prowess. But now birth control is available — the PX at
Warhorse even sold out of condoms one day recently — reflecting a widely accepted
reality that soldiers have sex at outposts across Iraq. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
are the first in which tens of thousands of American military women have lived, worked
and fought with men for prolonged periods. Wars without front lines, they have done
more than just muddle the rules meant to keep women out of direct enemy contact.

They have changed the way the United States military goes to war. They have reshaped
life on bases across Iraq and Afghanistan. They have cultivated a new generation of
women with a warrior’s ethos — and combat experience — that for millennia was almost
exclusively the preserve of men. And they have done so without the disruption of discipline
and unit cohesion that some feared would unfold at places like Warhorse.

“There was a lot of debate over where women should be,” said Brig. Gen. Heidi V. Brown,
one of the two highest ranking women in Iraq today, recalling the start of the war.
“Here we are six years later, and you don’t hear about it. You shouldn’t hear about it.”

In many ways, General Brown’s career trajectory since the war began reflects the expanded
role for women at war. In 2003, as a colonel, she commanded a Patriot air-defense brigade
that joined the push from Kuwait to Baghdad, losing nine soldiers in a maintenance battalion
outside Nasiriya three days after the invasion began. One of them, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa,
was the first woman killed in action in Iraq; Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch was captured in the same
attack. Now, as the American role in the war declines, General Brown will oversee the logistics
of withdrawing the vast amounts of military hardware in Iraq over the next year.

“We’ve needed — needed — the contributions of both our men and women,” said Brig. Gen.
Mary A. Legere, the director of intelligence for the American war effort here and the other
highest ranking woman in Iraq. The military, of course, is not gender blind, especially in a war
zone.

Sexual harassment in a still-predominantly male institution remains a problem. So does
sexual assault. Both are underreported, soldiers and officers here say, because the rigidity
of the military chain of command can make accusations uncomfortable and even risky for
victims living in close quarters with the men they accuse. As a precaution, women are
advised to travel in pairs, particularly in smaller bases populated with Iraqi troops and
civilians. Capt. Margaret D. Taafe-McMenamy, commander of the intelligence analysis
cell at Warhorse, carries a folding knife and a heavy, ridged flashlight — a Christmas
gift from her husband, whom she lives with here — as a precaution when she is out
at night on the base.

Staff Sgt. Patricia F. Bradford, 27, a psychological operations soldier, said that slights,
subtle and not, were common, and some were easier to brush off than others. Women
are still viewed derisively at times in the confined, occasionally tense space of an outpost
like Warhorse. “You’re a *****, a slut or a dyke — or you’re married, but even if you’re
married, you’re still probably one of the three,” Sergeant Bradford said. At the same time,
she and other female soldiers cope with the slights, showing a disarming brashness.
“I think being a staff sergeant — and a ***** — helps deflect those things,” she added.

The issues that arise in having women in combat — harassment, bias, hardship, even sexual
relations — are, she and others said, a matter of discipline, maturity and professionalism
rather than an argument for separating the sexes.

Sergeant Bradford recalled the day during her first tour when her convoy moved south while
a soldier with whom she was then engaged to be married moved north on the same highway.
She listened on the radio as his convoy came under an attack that continued after she was
out of range. “For four days, I had no idea what happened to him,” she said, “but I still had
to continue my mission, because that’s what you do when you’re a soldier.” (He emerged
unscathed, she later learned.)

Unforeseen Issues

Such issues were not foreseen when the war in Iraq began in 2003, even though the initial
invasion force included women in the vanguard. On a practical level, the military was not
prepared to house and otherwise address the specific needs of women in a war zone — including
issues like health and privacy. Early on, bases were largely makeshift and far more dangerous.
Few soldiers, male or female, had more than rudimentary quarters or latrines. None had much
privacy.

Sgt. Dawn M. Cloukey, a communications specialist, spent her first tour in Iraq in 2005 and 2006
as the only woman among 45 soldiers, operating a retransmission station in the mountains of
northern Iraq and then in the center of Baghdad. She lived out of a rucksack, with no toilet or
room of her own. She described the experience as isolating. “I always felt like the plague,” she
said at Warhorse, on her second tour in Iraq, where she handles communications for the
commander of the First Stryker Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division.

As the United States military settled into more permanent bases, many initial difficulties abated,
as the Army gradually adapted to the new reality of waging war with a mixed force. So have the
soldiers themselves. Women have sought acceptance in a still-predominately male environment
not by emphasizing their sex but rather by displaying their toughness, their willingness to adjust
to conditions that are less than ideal. “I’ve kicked my guys out of the truck to pee in a bottle like
that,” Sgt. Joelene M. Lachance, a soldier with the 172nd Military Intelligence Battalion, said at
Warhorse, pointing to one of the liter water bottles that are ubiquitous at bases in Iraq. “Cut the
bottle off and pee in the bottle and then dispose of it. Sometimes it’s an issue, but most of the
time, I just make do. “I don’t try to, like, ‘I can’t sleep here,’ ” she continued. “If they’re sleeping
there, I’m sleeping there. I spent five days out in the truck once — with six of my guys, sleeping
on the floor.”

Warhorse still reverberates with the rumble of armored convoys and the thud of helicopters ferrying
troops and, at times, the wounded. It is just north of Baquba, the regional capital of Diyala Province,
one of the most restive provinces in Iraq. Here, the war is not over. Warhorse will very likely be
among the last bases to close in Iraq before American troops withdraw in full. At the outset of the
war, the introduction of women into outposts like Warhorse raised fears not just of abuse or
harassment, but also of sex and pregnancy. The worst of those fears, officers say, have not
materialized.

In fact, sex in America’s war zones is fairly common, soldiers say, and has not generally proved
disruptive.

In April, the latest iteration of General Order No. 1, the rules governing the behavior of soldiers in
Iraq broadly, quietly relaxed the explicit prohibition on sex in a war zone, though it still bars sex with
Iraqis and spending the night in someone else’s CHU. Some commands, including Baghdad, retain
broader restrictions, for example, on being in CHUs belonging to members of the opposite sex.
“The chain of command already has to deal with enough,” Captain Taafe-McMenamy said. “They
don’t really want to have to punish soldiers for dating.”

Women do become pregnant — a condition that, intentional or not, in or out of wedlock, requires
the woman to be flown out within two weeks, causing personnel disruptions in individual units.
The Army and Marine Corps declined to say exactly how many women left Iraq and Afghanistan
as a result of pregnancies, but it appears to be relatively rare and has had little effect on overall
readiness, commanders say. At Warhorse, the First Stryker Brigade, which has thousands of soldiers,
has sent only three women home because of pregnancies in 10 months in Iraq, the brigade said.

“There was a fear if we integrate units, you will have a bunch of young people with raging hormones,
and it will end up in too many unwanted pregnancies, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth,” said Peter
Mansoor, a former battalion commander in Iraq who, until retiring recently, served as Gen. David H.
Petraeus’s executive officer. “With good leadership and mentorship, we have been able to keep those
problems to a minimum.”

Taking On New Roles

Roughly 1 in 20 of the 5,600 soldiers at Warhorse is female, a smaller ratio than in the military as
a whole. Nonetheless, they are fully integrated in the base’s operations. Many of the women at
Warhorse serve in jobs that have traditionally accommodated women: the base hospital, food service,
supply and administration. Others, though, serve on the brigade staff, in intelligence and psychological
operations, which until recently were part of the Special Forces and thus off limits to women.

“We have changed so much,” Col. Burt K. Thompson, the commander at Warhorse, said of the Army,
noting that every time he leaves the base, his patrol includes two women, including Sergeant Cloukey
“on comms” — communications — and a medic, Sgt. Evette T. Lee-Stewart. “To have a female on an
infantry brigade staff? Oh my God.” Like many commanders who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan,
he said that women have ended the debate over their role by their performance. “I’ve relieved males
from command,” he said. “I’ve never relieved a female commander in two and a half years as
commander.”

The nature of the war has also done much to change the debate over combat roles. Any trip off the
heavily secured bases now effectively invites contact with the enemy. Many women have also been
pulled off their regular jobs and trained to search Iraqi women at checkpoints because of local cultural
sensitivities, putting them as much at risk as any male counterpart. When Specialist Jennifer M.
Hoeppner goes “outside the wire” at Warhorse, as going on patrol is known, she clambers into what
she calls “the best seat in the truck,” the turret atop the Army’s newest armored vehicle, the MRAP.

“I’m the gunner on all our missions,” she said, having qualified for the M240B machine gun at an expert
level. “I think some of the males are a little confused when I go up,” Specialist Hoeppner said. “They’re
like, ‘Who’s your gunner?’ ”

Women are also increasingly “attached” to infantry and armored units that train and advise Iraq’s
police and military forces. Now that almost all American combat forces have pulled back to bases outside
of Iraq’s cities, that training has become the main mission in Iraq. The involvement of women in it has
been a cultural shock for Iraqi men far less accustomed to dealing with women professionally, especially
in the military. Women spoke of inappropriate comments or uncomfortable flattery, and even gifts. “It
was everything from candy to lingerie,” said Capt. Victoria Ferreira, 29, who spent a year with an 11-
person squad training Iraqi officers. “How do you react to that? ‘Thank you?’ ”

For the most part, though, Iraqis seem to accept the role of women in the American military — they
have even expanded their own ranks for tasks like searching women at checkpoints — even if it seems
unlikely that women will be incorporated more widely into the Iraqi armed forces anytime soon.

“I think now, six years since the war started, they’ve learned to adapt or tolerate the fact that in the
American Army we have high ranking positions that are filled by women,” said Capt. Violeta Z. Sifuentes,
who commands the 591st Military Police Company. It was not always so, she recalled of her first tour in
Samarra in 2006. “They always thought my platoon sergeant or my squad leader was the one in charge
until I was like, ‘Listen here. I’m in charge whether you like it or not.’ ”

The captain’s remarks were typical. The women serving in today’s military represent a generational shift.
They are confident young women who have not had to fight the same gender battles their predecessors
in uniform did. “I never felt like I had to fight to succeed in the Army” was how Captain Taafe-McMenamy,
who is 27, put it.

Adapting to the Tasks

Women in today’s military say they do not feel the same pressure to prove themselves. They adapt and
expect others to adapt. They preserve their femininity without making much of it. Specialist Hoeppner and
her roommate, Sergeant Bradford, belong to the 361st Tactical Psychological Operations Company, which
patrols the towns and villages of Diyala with infantry squads to spread and collect information. On a recent
patrol in the small village of Shifta, they seemed more of a novelty to the Iraqis they encountered than
the soldiers they patrolled with, taking up defensive positions alongside their male colleagues whenever
they paused.

“I actually had this million-dollar idea my first deployment,” Sergeant Bradford said of her tour as a truck
driver hauling supplies in 2004. “I was like, I need something that’s like a beer bong that I can hold in
place so I can pee standing up without pulling my pants down. Cause we were truck drivers. We’d stop
on the side of the road. There’s no bushes. I was telling one of my soldiers about this great idea, and he
said they already make that.”

She produced from her bunk in her CHU a device sold by REI called a “feminine urinary director.” “It’s
even pink,” Specialist Hoeppner interjected. Warhorse’s supply officer — a woman — acquired dozens
of them. “The first time one of them came around a truck and saw me peeing on a tire,” she said of
one of her male colleagues, “I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”
 

Yrys

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Wartime Soldier, Conflicted Mom, September 26, 2009

When Specialist Jaymie Holschlag returned home after 12 months in Iraq, a new set of children awaited her.

Her son, Seth, 10, who had moved in with his grandfather, switching towns and schools,
was angry and depressed. His grades had plummeted and his weight had ballooned by
60 pounds. Her 4-year-old daughter, Celeste, scarcely knew her. And in Specialist
Holschlag’s absence, new rules had taken hold — chocolate syrup on waffles, Mountain
Dew with dinner. Any hint of a return to the old order met with tirades and tantrums.

Specialist Holschlag, a single mother and a combat medic, had changed profoundly, too.
The violence in Ramadi had staked a claim on her patience, her tenderness and her
resilience. She snapped at her children routinely, at times harshly. Last month, on the
eve of her second tour in Iraq, Specialist Holschlag decided she could not put her children
through another deployment, and she requested a transfer. “They are my kids, and they
deserve a mom that is wanting to hug them,” she said.

The military has in large part adapted to women living, working and fighting successfully
alongside men in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bringing home their own medals for bravery.
Women can now find birth control on bases in war zones and get ultrasounds and
gynecological exams. Married couples share trailers. Motherhood, though, poses a more
formidable challenge for the armed forces.

Hanging on to today’s war-savvy, battle-tested cadre of mothers — and would-be mothers —
is both crucial and difficult for the Army, say officers, enlistees and experts. So is attracting
recruits. Since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, the number of female Army recruits
has declined by 5 percent, a sharper drop than for men. “The Army’s challenge, but also the
military’s challenge, is to help service members feel they don’t have to choose between family
life and their military career,” said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family
Research Institute at Purdue University, an organization supported in part by the Department
of Defense.

“They leave when they can’t figure out” a way to do both, she said.

More than 100,000 female soldiers who have served in the wars are mothers, nearly half the
number of women who have been deployed. The vast majority are primary caregivers, and a
third are single mothers. Like men, they turn to the military for all sorts of reasons. The pay
is good, particularly in a war zone, the benefits are excellent and the jobs offer financial security
and career advancement — all of which is good for their children. Many love their work and feel
a sense of pride and patriotism in defending the country. Yet mothers, whether married or single,
say that long periods of time away from their children and then the transition back to domestic life
— where they are expected to immediately resume household responsibilities — can be
excruciatingly difficult.

The Pulls of Duty

Not long after reuniting with her children in 2005, Specialist Holschlag said, she was sitting alone
in her apartment in Iowa when she was struck by a thought she recognized as absurdly selfish:
she wanted to go back to Iraq. “All of us that were single parents, who came back to our lives,
there isn’t one of us who didn’t say it was easier being in Iraq than coming back and picking
back up,” said Specialist Holschlag, 36.

The military tries to discourage single parents altogether. They are not allowed to enlist in active
duty, though if they become single they can stay after providing a notarized family care plan.
(Nearly 12 percent of the women in the regular Army and 4 percent of the men are single parents,
according to 2008 statistics.) The National Guard and the Reserves allow single parents to join since
those jobs are technically part time. They, too, require a family care plan — but even the best-laid
plans can go awry.

When Willa Townes, a single mother in the Army Reserve, was called to Iraq early in the war, her
sister agreed to watch her 5-year-old son — then backed out two weeks before Ms. Townes was to
deploy. “I broke down right there,” Ms. Townes said. “I was devastated.” Refusing deployment was
not an option, she said. She was then the No. 3 person in the chain of command, and it was her
15th year in the military. She needed five more years to retire with a hefty bonus. “I wanted to go,”
said Ms. Townes, who retired last year as a lieutenant colonel. “I needed to go.”

Frantic, she turned to her son’s first day care provider, who had become a friend and volunteered to
take him for the year Ms. Townes was away. “We were not related at all,” Ms. Townes recalled,
adding that the arrangement worked wonderfully and that she insisted on sending her friend money
for expenses. “We were not even of the same race. That didn’t matter. People come together to help
you when you are in need.”

Since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the armed forces have changed some long-held policies,
hoping to ease some of the difficulties mothers face. Without a return to the draft, the need for women
is unlikely to go away. “We’re certainly attuned to the challenges that motherhood imposes on our
female soldiers,” said Lt. Col. George P. Wright, an Army spokesman. “We have several programs that are
designed to address those challenges.” Last year, the Army extended the time that a new mother can defer
deployment from four to six months. Then, in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the base
commander, Col. Brian Lein, following the Navy’s lead, increased it to a year, the recommended time
a mother should breast-feed.

To help lessen the stress of long separations, the Army has started to allow more families to accompany
soldiers to South Korea, where once soldiers had to deploy alone. Back home, the Army has built additional
day care centers and allowed some families to stay in one place longer. Last year, the Army approved 10-day
paternity leaves for new fathers, a milestone. Working off surveys that show women respond better to
flexible schedules than financial incentives, the Navy now allows more sailors to work from home on
computers, when possible. It is also running a small pilot program that permits three-year sabbaticals.

Advocacy groups for women and families say more can be done but recognize that with the military fighting
two wars and strapped for deployable soldiers, significant changes will have to come gradually. Some fixes,
though, are relatively straightforward.

“The one thing the military could do that would have a lasting and immediate impact would be to provide
plentiful round-the-clock child care,” said Lory Manning, who directs the military women’s project for the
Women’s Research and Education Institute, a nonprofit group. Meanwhile, hardships remain.

Under current regulations, the military offers no assurance to military couples that they will not be deployed
to war simultaneously. A unit’s requirements come first. But some joined the Army with the expectation
that this would never come up. Maj. Katherine P. Guttormsen, who has a year-old son, dreads the moment
she gets the call to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan, particularly because her husband, an officer, is still there.
The thought keeps her up at night, she said.

As a mother in the military, “the sacrifice is greater now,” said Major Guttormsen, a graduate of West Point
who served in Iraq as company commander of an engineering unit then switched to public affairs when she
decided to have a child. “This is a different Army than I entered into in 1996. It was fun. You were doing
exercises. You weren’t going to Iraq and getting shot at.” Major Guttormsen, who was a “lioness,” part of
the first team of Army women to search Iraqi women in Ramadi in 2004, said, “I don’t know if I get that call,
if I would be able to do it, and that would be the end of my Army career.”

Staff Sgt. Connica McFadden of the Army received only two weeks’ notice that she would be deploying and
scrambled to find a caretaker for her 6-month-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Her commander at Hunter
Army Airfield in Georgia had given her assurances in 2003 that she would not be going to Iraq that year so
soon after giving birth. Her husband also would be deploying. But the rules changed. Heartbroken, she
weaned the baby abruptly and left her with an aunt, while her son stayed elsewhere with his grandmother.

Not obeying orders was not an option. Sergeant McFadden, who holds only an associate’s degree, wanted
to hold on to her career. “It matters what I do,” Sergeant McFadden said. “I love helping people. It’s for
our country. My dad was a Vietnam vet. I feel like I owe it to him.”

The Children’s Burden

Parents fret most about the consequences that long deployments will have on their children. By now,
nearly two million children have seen a parent go to war. In some cases, their mothers have not come
home. At least 25 women with children have died while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, out of 121
women casualties. Recent surveys indicate that most children, while largely resilient, experience worry
and anxiety when a parent deploys, and the military has tried to address this by increasing counseling
services. Nevertheless, grades and behavior suffer. Young children cry more. Some start wetting their
beds. Nightmares are common, and teenagers can become more reclusive and defiant. National Guard
and Reserve children are often hit worse since they live outside the military community.

Single mothers have the fewest options, said Mark C. Pisano, a psychologist at two schools at Fort Bragg
in North Carolina. “Not only are they getting up and moving, but moving without Mom makes it even
more stressful.” Even under the best circumstances — leaving young children with a spouse — a
deployment can bring on feelings of anguish.

After her cousin was wounded in Iraq, Specialist Stephanie McCulley, 27, felt compelled to enlist in the
Army. She left her two young boys with her husband, a former Marine, when she deployed to Baghdad
in 2007 as a combat medic. Specialist McCulley earned a Bronze Star with Valor for administering aid
after a roadside bomb demolished a Humvee. Two soldiers died instantly. She was able to save a third.

Technology has helped soften the separation for many parents. Webcams and Skype have allowed them
to talk to their children over dinner or before school. They leave teddy bears behind with recorded messages
or record themselves reading books that their children love. But Specialist McCulley relied on old-school
communication, mostly because the Internet was not always available and her boys were so young. She
wrote letters and a journal. “You should have seen your mom driving a big old truck,” she wrote in one entry.

But Specialist McCulley could not help but catalog the milestones she was missing — first words, first wobbly
run, first day of preschool. The feeling was worse on days she “should have gotten killed and didn’t.” “I always
felt guilty,” she said. Now, more than a year since her homecoming, any trip out the door — to the grocery
store, to her Army base — prompts a flurry of nervous questions from the boys, who are 4 and 5: “Where
are you going?” and “How long will you be gone?” “They still think I’m going to leave,” Specialist McCulley
said with a note of melancholy. “They have paid a price. It will always affect them in some way. I do think
they are resilient; this makes them stronger. But I do wonder sometimes, what long-term damage did I do?”

One positive thing did come of the separation: her husband, John, grew closer to the boys and became a true
partner in the marriage, something other mothers also cite as a silver lining. “It made him a better dad,”
Specialist McCulley said. “He acts very motherly sometimes.” If called again, though, Specialist McCulley
said she would go. “The children are being taken care of, and if I wasn’t here, people would be dying,”
she concluded.

But Jaymie Holschlag’s experience in Ramadi convinced her that for her family, the sacrifice was too high.
She returned in 2006 with post-traumatic stress disorder. Working as a medic had left her raw. She lost
three soldiers to a roadside bomb in her month there. “We were either getting hit with I.E.D.’s, finding
I.E.D.’s or getting hit when we were on post,” she said, referring to improvised explosive devices. From
Iraq, she kept in touch with home by e-mail. But she could only stay focused by disconnecting from
family life. She rarely talked to her son on the phone because the conversations made a bad situation
worse. “To hear them cry and miss me would keep me out of the game,” she said. “It would make it
hard to put the game face on.”

Her stepfather and her 21-year-old sister, who agreed to share responsibility for the children, a significant
sacrifice, were struggling to cope. The children had trouble sleeping. Seth had trouble in his new school.
“My sister was on the verge of totally freaking out,” Specialist Holschlag said, adding: “There was no sense
of co-parenting. It almost tore their relationship apart.” When she returned, she saw that her son had
“gained a good 50 or 60 pounds,” she said. “His depression, he wore it. I could see what my year away
from him did.” Yet she was determined to hold on to her military job. It gave her a sense of identity and
paid the bills. She also wanted to help her family heal. She and the children began counseling and moved
to Texas to start fresh. But recently three weeks of intense combat training, the kind that simulates Iraq,
exacerbated her stress disorder. She could feel her temper flaring again and asked to transfer out.

Specialist Holschlag is back in Iowa now, getting mental health counseling and gearing up for college and
a nursing degree. Her children are ecstatic about the turn of events, she said. “It was the hardest choice
of my life,” Specialist Holschlag said. “My daughter keeps running around saying, ‘You love me so much,
you’d give up Iraq for me.’ She knows how much I love my job. She also knows that I won’t leave them
no matter what.”



 

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A Combat Role, and Anguish, Too, October 31, 2009

For Vivienne Pacquette, being a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder
means avoiding phone calls to her sons, dinner out with her husband and therapy
sessions that make her talk about seeing the reds and whites of her friends’ insides
after a mortar attack in 2004.

As with other women in her position, hiding seems to make sense. Post-traumatic
stress disorder distorts personalities: some veterans who have it fight in their sleep;
others feel paranoid around children. And as women return to a society unfamiliar
with their wartime roles, they often choose isolation over embarrassment. Many
spend months or years as virtual shut-ins, missing the camaraderie of Iraq or
Afghanistan, while racked with guilt over who they have become.

“After all, I’m a soldier, I’m an NCO, I’m a problem solver,” said Mrs. Pacquette,
52, a retired noncommissioned officer who served two tours in Iraq and more
than 20 years in the Army. “What’s it going to look like if I can’t get things straight
in my head?”

Never before has this country seen so many women paralyzed by the psychological
scars of combat. As of June 2008, 19,084 female veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan
had received diagnoses of mental disorders from the Department of Veterans Affairs,
including 8,454 women with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress — and this number
does not include troops still enlisted, or those who have never used the V.A. system.

Their mental anguish, from mortar attacks, the deaths of friends, or traumas that are
harder to categorize, is a result of a historic shift. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military
has quietly sidestepped regulations that bar women from jobs in ground combat. With
commanders needing resources in wars without front lines, women have found themselves
fighting on dusty roads and darkened outposts in ways that were never imagined by
their parents or publicly authorized by Congress. And they have distinguished themselves
in the field.

Psychologically, it seems, they are emerging as equals. Officials with the Department of
Defense said that initial studies of male and female veterans with similar time outside
the relative security of bases in Iraq showed that mental health issues arose in roughly
the same proportion for members of each sex, though research continues.

“Female soldiers are actually handling and dealing with the stress of combat as well as
male soldiers are,” said Col. Carl Castro, director of the Military Operational Research
Program at the Department of Defense. “When I look at the data, I see nothing to
counter that point.” And yet, experts and veterans say, the circumstances of military
life and the way women are received when they return home have created differences
in how they cope. A man, for instance, may come home and drink to oblivion with his
war buddies while a woman — often after having been the only woman in her unit —
is more likely to suffer alone.

Some psychiatrists say that women do better in therapy because they are more comfortable
talking through their emotions, but it typically takes years for them to seek help. In interviews,
female veterans with post-traumatic stress said they did not always feel their problems were
justified, or would be treated as valid by a military system that defines combat as an all-male
activity.

“Some of the issues come up because they’re not given the combat title even though they
may be out on patrol standing next to the men,” said Patricia Resick, director of the Women’s
Health Sciences Division at the National Center for P.T.S.D., a wing of the Department of Veterans
Affairs. While more men over all suffer from the disorder because they are a majority of those
deployed, Dr. Resick added, “people underestimate what these women have been through.”

Indeed, at home, after completing important jobs in war, women with the disorder often smack
up against old-fashioned ignorance: male veterans and friends who do not recognize them as
“real soldiers”; husbands who have little patience with their avoidance of intimacy; and a society
that expects them to be feminine nurturers, not the nurtured.

War as Equalizer

When Mrs. Pacquette joined the army in the ’80s — inspired by her father, who served in World
War II — men often told her she did not belong. “Women were seen as weak and whiny,” she said.
“Men had to go on sick call all the time but when a woman went on sick call, it was a big deal.”
Even before she was deployed to Iraq in 2004, however, she sensed what thousands of women
have since discovered: that war would be an equalizer. And it was.

In early October 2004, her convoy of about 30 vehicles set out from Kuwait for Mosul, one of Iraq’s
most violent cities. On the way, she said, they were hit three times with roadside bombs. One
exploded 200 feet from the unarmored Humvee in which Mrs. Pacquette spent day and night
pointing her rifle out an open window.

Gunshots arrived, too, on a bridge in Baghdad. Soldiers took up positions outside their vehicles,
and an Iraqi was killed. “It was my birthday,” Mrs. Pacquette said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my
God, I’m going to die.’ ” Instead, she surprised even herself by remaining calm. “There were guys
on the ground that I was responsible for as an NCO,” she said, adding, “As a leader, I had to keep
my fear inside.” But later on, the war’s consequences began to weigh more heavily. On Dec. 21,
an Iraqi suicide bomber walked into a mess tent at a base across the street from her own and blew
himself up amid the plastic lunch trays, killing more than 25 people. Then a mortar attack hit the
motor pool where her unit worked. At the scene, she saw three of her friends torn up beyond
recognition.

Recalling the scene nearly five years later, Mrs. Pacquette’s dark brown eyes began darting back
and forth, as if looking for another rocket. She was in St. Croix, the island where she grew up,
but her body stiffened like a wound coil — releasing only after her twin sister brought their faces
together, in a silent hug that lasted several minutes. Her mind had returned to the moment.
And this emotional flashback is just one in a long list of post-traumatic stress symptoms that
female veterans now know intimately. Fits of rage, insomnia, nightmares, depression, survivor’s
guilt, fear of crowds — women with the disorder, like men, can and do get it all.

Mrs. Pacquette’s twin, Jamilah Moorehead, said she noticed it soon after her sister’s first tour. “In
the middle of the night, I heard this loud noise and there was Viv,” Mrs. Moorehead said. “She was
crouching as if holding a weapon and she was not even awake.” A military doctor gave Mrs. Pacquette
a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress in March 2005, but she refused treatment. “I didn’t want anyone
to know,” she said. That November, she returned to Iraq, where she said she managed to keep the
disorder hidden because she often worked alone. She retired from the military in 2006, but is still
struggling with how to face the diagnosis.

The worst part, she said, was seeing her personality harden. First, she lost the ability to trust the Iraqi
soldiers she served with. Then at home, she said, she fell out of touch with loved ones, though her
husband has stood by her side. Now simply standing in line with other people is enough to turn her
into what she calls “a witch, but with B.”

Dr. Carri-Ann Gibson, Mrs. Pacquette’s therapist, who runs the Trauma Recovery Program at the James
A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla., said the hardest part for women is that they often feel ashamed
and guilty because “they’re not supposed to punch a wall, they’re not supposed to get aggressive with
their spouse.” Dr. Gibson said that for men, rage, paranoia and aggression are more accepted, while women
are typically expected to snap back into domestic routines without any trouble. “Women apply that pressure
to themselves as well,” she said. “They live with that inner feeling of anger, and that’s why we see more
events happening at home than actually out in public.”

Dr. Resick of the National Center for P.T.S.D. said much was still unknown about how the minds of men
and women handle war. But at this point, she said, men and women differ mainly in how they manage
similar symptoms. “You put a man and a woman in a truck and they get blasted by an I.E.D., we’re not
seeing big differences there,” Dr. Resick said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “That said, there
are different context factors that affect how people cope.” “The women — because they are not surrounded
by other women, they may be surrounded by men — may withdraw more,” she continued. “The question is,
Who are they with when they come home?”

Homefront Isolation

Many women traumatized by combat stress described lives of quiet desperation, alone, in just a few rooms
with drawn shades. Nancy Schiliro, 29, who lost her right eye as a result of a mortar attack in 2005, said
that for more than two years after returning home, she rarely left a darkened garage in Hartsdale, N.Y.,
that her grandmother called “the bat cave.” Shalimar Bien, 30, described her life, four years after Iraq,
as a nonstop effort to avoid confrontation.

Ms. Sherrod said that five years after her last deployment to Iraq, she still makes only a few trips a week
outside her home in Jackson, Tenn., usually to drop off or pick up her 4-year-old son at school. She often
eels like a failure because her son pushes for what she cannot handle. “I don’t take him to Chuck E.
Cheese because I’ll get angry,” she said, noting that the arcade’s bells and bangs make her jumpy.
“Take him to a park? It’s a lose-lose. I don’t like open spaces.”

She can identify a handful of causes for what her mind has become. In Baghdad with an Air Force rescue
squadron from the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2004, she worked on helicopters, sometimes cleaning off
the blood from casualties, and regularly receiving indirect fire. “I was getting mortared all the time,”
Mrs. Sherrod said. “So someone was watching me.”

She also feels damaged from her time in Jordan, at the start of the Iraq war. One of only two women in
her unit, she said, she was ostracized after asking to be shifted to nights because some of the men would
not stop harassing her. Her superiors, she said, broke a promise to keep her complaint quiet and after that,
the men in her unit lashed out. “This one guy said if I was on fire he wouldn’t even piss on me to put me
out,” Mrs. Sherrod said.

Many female veterans report being treated with respect by male colleagues, more so as they proved
themselves. But several women said in interviews that some men made their wartime experiences
even harder. Mrs. Pacquette said that on her second tour, in Baghdad, she took showers with an open
knife on the soap dish after seeing a man flee the bathroom trailer, having just attacked a woman inside.
In Mrs. Sherrod’s case, the harm came more from being shunned by her unit. For months in Jordan,
she said, she had no e-mail access. No phone. No friends. She was isolated.

So at home, she got used to pushing people away. On her first date with the man who became her husband,
she told him she had post-traumatic stress, figuring he would not stick around. He did, but they have
struggled to stay together. She always wanted to be a mother, and described her first child as a product of a
whirlwind return from war. She became pregnant with her son within a month of reaching home, she said,
after a night of drinking. When she later got pregnant with her daughter, who is 9 months old, she said she
still thought the doctors were wrong about her stress disorder.

Now, having finally accepted the diagnosis after connecting with other veterans online, she fears her own
temper more than anything else. The other day, in the car, she lost control when both of her children
demanded attention. “I can handle one or the other,” she said, “but she was crying and he kept saying,
‘Mommy, mommy,’ so in the middle of the road, I stopped the car and yelled: ‘If you do not be quiet I’m
going to turn around and hit you.’ “The look on his face broke my heart,” Mrs. Sherrod said. “He just
wanted to talk to me. He wasn’t doing anything bad.” She paused, then said: “I’m like that all the time.”

Homefront Ignorance

When Heather Paxton started working at the V.A. hospital in Columbia, Mo., two years ago, she discovered
something she did not expect: no one saw her as a veteran. Despite her service in Iraq, patients assumed
she knew nothing of war. A male colleague who chattered about weapons dismissed her like a silly little
sister when she chimed in. “He’d give me the stink eye,” Ms. Paxton said. “He’d just walk away.”

For many female veterans today, war and their roles in it must be constantly explained. For those with
post-traumatic stress, the constant demand for proof can be particularly maddening — confirming their
belief that only the people who were “over there” can understand them here. Men express similar
sentiments; combat veterans of both sexes often complain about insensitive questions like,
“Did you kill anyone?”

But women say they are also treated to another line of inquiry. Would male veterans, they ask,
hear friends or relatives say, “How was the shopping?” Or “In that heat, how did you wear
makeup?” Or “How could you have P.T.S.D. when you sat at a desk with a typewriter?”

Female veterans say they have heard them all.

They have also seen their sacrifice overlooked, in bars, where strangers slide past them to buy
drinks for men who were never deployed; and at “welcome home” events where organizers
asked for their husbands. Tammy Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost her
legs to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, said such experiences show that “we’re going through
a change — just like in World War II with African-Americans, the military is ahead of the American
public.”

What many do not realize, said Ms. Duckworth, who ran for Congress and is now the assistant
secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs for the V.A., is that in war today, “it’s not a
question, Can women can do a combat job. They just are.” Some women have found ways to
at least minimize the slight.

Ms. Paxton now has a picture above her desk, showing her, her mother and her brother, all in
uniform. Mrs. Pacquette has placed a decal on her cane (like many veterans, she has damaged
knees and a bad back from lugging gear) that identifies her as an Iraq war veteran. Sometimes,
though, simple messages are not enough. Renee Peloquin, 25, a member of the Idaho National
Guard, had to design a bumper sticker that says “Female Iraqi War Veteran” because the basic
“Iraq War Veteran” message on her car led strangers to thank her long-haired boyfriend for
serving, even though he has never spent a day in uniform. “I’m so sick of being stereotyped,”
Ms. Peloquin said. “Or being ignored, that’s a better word.”

The military and the Department of Veterans Affairs have worked hard to make the public more
aware of women’s roles. There are now Army recruiting advertisements featuring women in war
zones. The V.A. has bought hundreds of copies of the documentary “Lioness,” which profiles
female veterans in Ramadi, while producing a video of its own with Jane Pauley that shows the
history of military women. Last year, the veterans’ agency also began a systemwide effort to
make primary care for female veterans available at every V.A. medical facility nationwide. At
Ms. Paxton’s V.A. in Columbia, and Dr. Gibson’s in Tampa, women’s centers take up separate
wings of the hospitals, as the V.A. prepares for its population of patients who are women to
double over the next few years.

For some women with post-traumatic stress, like Angela Peacock in St. Louis, the V.A. has
been a godsend. She said that the doctors who helped her detoxify from drug and alcohol
addiction saved her from suicide. Many others, however, insist that the military, the V.A.
and other established veterans organizations have not fully adapted to women’s new roles.
The military, they say, still treats them like wives, not warriors. Some therapists, case workers
and female patients also say that because military regulations governing women’s roles have
not caught up with reality, women must work harder to prove they saw combat and get the
benefits they deserve.

V.A. officials, including Ms. Duckworth, say there is no systemic bias. V.A. statistics show that
as of July 2009, 5,103 female Iraq or Afghanistan veterans had received disability benefits for
the stress disorder, compared with 57,732 males. But the V.A. did not provide the number of
men and women who had applied, making a comparison of rejection rates impossible. At best,
women are caught in the same bureaucratic morass as men; the backlog for disability claims
from all veterans climbed to 400,000 in July, up from 253,000 six years ago. At worst, women
are sometimes held to a tougher standard.

Ms. Paxton is one of at least 3,000 female Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with stress disorder
diagnoses and no disability benefit, as shown by the V.A. statistics. Serving in Tikrit, Iraq, five years
ago with a civil affairs unit, she took part in missions several times a week on roads regularly rigged
with bombs. She worked closely with two Iraqi translators who were killed — she saw one in his bullet-
ridden car just after he had been assassinated — and she came home with nightmares, depression
and anger.

Though she received a diagnosis of stress disorder by a V.A. doctor, she had her first disability claim
rejected in 2006. A second refusal came a year later, and the third arrived in 2008, despite a letter
verifying what happened from a captain with her unit. Her V.A. case worker, Julie Heese, said the
rejections highlighted what made the benefits system so challenging. “The claims process is a tough
one because you have to have really clear evidence,” Ms. Heese said. She added that it works best
“with a well documented battle or attack,” not with experiences that may go unrecorded, like the
death of a translator.

Newly proposed V.A. rules easing requirements for documenting traumatic events could help Ms.
Paxton’s case. But she said she feared a fourth disappointment. She said she no longer cared about
getting money. After experiencing the grave shock of war and its never-ending aftermath, she would
like a little more recognition. “Just admit that it happened,” she said, her voice rising, over a meal her
husband cooked at their home in Columbia. “Then it’s over.”
 

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Going where male Marines can't CNN April 2010

Camp Cafferetta, Helmand Province – Cpl. Christina Arana and Lance Cpl. Giada Witt
check their weapons one last time, and leave the base behind. On the other side of
the wire is … well, Afghanistan. The real country. It’s a long way from the relatively
secure and well-supplied large bases – the places where most female soldiers and
Marines are stationed. The two women are part of FET, or Female Engagement Team.

It’s a program started last year, when the U.S. Marine Corps realized it was only
reaching half the population. The Marines mostly operate in the more rural, conservative
areas in southern Afghanistan. There, men are not allowed to look at – let alone talk to
– women. So the predominantly male Marine units were missing a chance to engage
50 percent of the Afghan people.

The military has found that while Afghan women may seem outwardly marginalized,
they do have a good deal of influence within their homes – especially over young sons,
who make up Afghanistan’s next generation. Also in rural areas, Afghan women often
meet amongst themselves, and share information about the village. Afghan men don’t
place the same restrictions on speaking to Western women. So the FET Marines first
have to engage – and gain the trust of – the man of the house. Once he is comfortable
with them, he’ll often invite them into his home to speak with his wife.

FET is designed to put trained female Marines into areas where the U.S. military is trying
to win over the Afghan people. They get special training before being deployed. The women
are taught the history of the Taliban, and some of the cultural awareness issues specific to
different parts of the country. Some of these lessons are supplied by input from actual
Afghan women from those areas.

Because they will be operating outside the wire, often on foot with Marine patrols, they also
take an extended refresher course in combat training. This includes increasing their awareness
of ambushes and sniper attacks, and learning more about convoy operatons. Witt says one of
the exercises involves doing a lot of push-ups, jumping up into a full sprint and then stopping
to fire. The training is designed to increase their ability to fire under pressure, something most
female Marines don’t have as much experience with. FET grew out of the “Lioness” program
in Iraq, where female Marines searched Iraqi women at checkpoints.

Women only make up about 6 percent of the Marine Corps. And FET teams are still staffed in an
ad hoc way, thrown together with women who have other jobs and responsibilities. That means
a FET team could spend a month or so establishing relationships within a particular village, and
then be summoned back to their “home unit.” Some critics of this practice say, if the FET
program is producing good results, it should be staffed full-time. And women should be allowed
to spend longer periods of time training and deploying to their designated areas.


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These are a series of articles on women in the military and in some cases combat in the US forces....with the focus recently of some of the issues in the CF, it gives a picture of what is happening to the South....

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Women at Arms
Articles in the Women at Arms series explore how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have profoundly redefined the role of women in the military.
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A Peril in War Zones: Sexual Abuse by Fellow G.I.’s
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By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: December 27, 2009

BAGHDAD — Capt. Margaret H. White began a relationship with a warrant officer while both were training to be deployed to Iraq. By the time they arrived this year at Camp Taji, north of here, she felt what she called “creepy vibes” and tried to break it off.

A Combat Role, and Anguish, Too
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By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: October 31, 2009

For Vivienne Pacquette, being a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder means avoiding phone calls to her sons, dinner out with her husband and therapy sessions that make her talk about seeing the reds and whites of her friends’ insides after a mortar attack in 2004.

Wartime Soldier, Conflicted Mom
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By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
Published: September 26, 2009

When Specialist Jaymie Holschlag returned home after 12 months in Iraq, a new set of children awaited her.

G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier
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By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
Published: August 15, 2009

As the convoy rumbled up the road in Iraq, Specialist Veronica Alfaro was struck by the beauty of fireflies dancing in the night. Then she heard the unmistakable pinging of tracer rounds and, in a Baghdad moment, realized the insects were illuminated bullets.


Living and Fighting Alongside Men, and Fitting In
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FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, Iraq — There is no mistaking that this dusty, gravel-strewn camp northeast of Baghdad is anything other than a combat outpost in a still-hostile land. And there is no mistaking that women in uniform have had a transformative effect on it.



 
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