07-02-06, 11:40 PM
The war's deadliest day for U.S. women
By Susan Dominus
There was a loud bang and the flash of a fireball—and in just minutes an Iraqi suicide bomb killed three American military women and horribly wounded 11 more. It happened one year ago this month and was one of the worst disasters ever to hit U.S. women in uniform. But out of that dreadful attack came a true band of sisters—tied together by friendship, honor and raw courage.
As the early summer days in Iraq got hotter and hotter, pushing well past 100 degrees, many of the female marines in Fallujah went on high alert: American intelligence said that a suicide bomber was planning an attack that would specifically target military women. But on June 23, 2005, Angelica Jimenez, then a 20-year-old lance corporal from New Jersey, wasn't thinking about that; she wasn't thinking about the mortars that sometimes flew overhead or about the other dangers of her job manning a checkpoint that Iraqis passed through to get into and out of Fallujah. Instead, she woke up feeling like it would be a good day. "It was my husband's birthday, and I was going to talk to him on the phone that night," says Jimenez, a young woman with a quiet confidence and a soft, gentle voice. Jimenez was usually enveloped in a fog of exhaustion, thanks to the early dawn wake-up call and long hours at work, but for once, she wasn't even tired. "It just seemed like everything was going right."
Jimenez was one of 17 American military women who would be manning seven checkpoints scattered around Fallujah that day, patting down Iraqi women and searching them for explosives. For the most part, she was proud to be there, helping with what she saw as the U.S. mission, bringing democracy to Iraq. "We were part of the cause. It meant something," she says.
The job wasn't difficult, but it was risky; the majority of military women in Iraq worked on base, protected by thick concrete barriers, but at the checkpoints, troops were exposed to the sporadic violence of the surrounding city. The most dangerous part was simply getting to work: Every morning a convoy—consisting of a few armed trucks and Humvees—picked up the women from their barracks in Camp Fallujah for a 20-minute ride down a sniper-lined urban highway. In the evening, a convoy returned them to the base, because women weren't allowed to sleep in the same quarters as men. (Most male marines slept at their checkpoints and didn't travel the perilous route each day.) Jimenez's fellow marine Lance Corporal Erin Libby, then 21, from Maine, came to dread the drive. "I used to head out thinking: Is this the day we get blown up?" she says. "You just knew something was going to happen eventually. It was logical."
For relief from the tension, the marines reveled in the breaks they took in the trailers parked near each checkpoint. "Mostly what I did there was sleep," says Jimenez; others killed time listening to their iPods or channeling the heroics of Spider-Man on their Game Boys. They'd trade favorite movie lines or pass around photos from back home. Libby would crack everyone up by contorting her prom queen-pretty face into an imitation of a camel, or she'd lead a session of eight-minute abs.
Women make up a small portion of the marines—6 percent, compared with 15 percent in the military overall—so when female friendships click, they tend to be fast and strong. Jimenez had grown particularly close to Holly Charette, a 21-year-old lance corporal from Rhode Island who was well liked because she also worked in the mail room and would sort through stacks of correspondence if someone came in desperate for a letter. A former cheerleader, Charette had a huge collection of chick-flick DVDs and had memorized Britney Spears' dance moves, which she'd occasionally show off. "The girl was just smiles, smiles, smiles all the time," says Jimenez. The two women called each other by their last names—often marines don't even know their friends' first names—but that didn't stop them from talking about everything: Charette's younger brothers, the boyfriend she adored, Jimenez's siblings, the husband she'd married just two weeks before leaving for Iraq. During their breaks, Charette would read aloud racy passages from a book called Addicted, and both women would howl with laughter.
Despite the upbeat start to her day, and a safe ride to her checkpoint, Jimenez could sense that her good mood was wearing off as the hours of June 23, 2005, ticked by. "It just felt weird," she says. "I couldn't put my finger on it." Unusually slow days tend to make marines nervous: In Iraq, when insurgent attacks are in the works, the streets usually empty out as word gets to civilians to stay clear. Jimenez wasn't the only one ill at ease—Sally Saalman, then 21, the corporal in charge of the female marines at all the checkpoints, was dismayed to see a sandstorm brewing; it was the kind of weather that gives insurgents ideal cover for an attack. Unbeknownst to Jimenez, the day that had begun so well would prove to be the saddest and most terrifying of her young life.
More than that, the hours to come would mark a historical reckoning point for female soldiers. For while the Iraqi conflict is much like any other war—filled with split-second decisions, reckless mistakes and impromptu displays of heroism—the faces of the combatants have changed. In a war with no classic front lines, women share the dangers with men, and these female marines would prove that they, like generations of male soldiers before them, were ready to fight, risk their lives and even die trying to protect each other.
By seven o'clock that evening, at another checkpoint three or four miles away, the sun was still hot and high in the sky. Alisha Harding, then a 23-year-old marine corporal from Utah, wasn't feeling so much disturbed as she was annoyed. Harding, who'd joined the Corps because she wanted "to be a hard-***," believed strongly in the U.S. mission in Iraq. That day, however, she was frustrated with the way things were being run; she was angry at the male marines who would be escorting her and the other women back to base. "They were rushing us," she says.
Ordinarily, at the end of the day, a few men from each checkpoint would drive their female coworkers to a large U.S. facility known as Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC), where Iraqis also went to bring grievances against the American military. Over the course of an hour or two, the women would trickle in to CMOC until all of them—anywhere from 17 to 19 marines—had arrived. Then they'd clamber onto one truck and head with their security detail back to Camp Fallujah. However, in recent weeks the convoy had been leaving earlier than usual. On the evening of June 23, the men seemed to be in a hurry to get back to the relative comfort of the base, several of the female marines say. (Other marines say the timetable was compressed to confuse the insurgents. Public-affairs officials at marine headquarters declined to confirm any of these details or comment on the circumstances of that day.) Whatever the reason, on that evening a few of the male marines took the initiative of driving to each checkpoint to pick up the women and ferry them to CMOC. When Harding's ride arrived, a higher-ranking marine said: "You guys shouldn't be going out there right now. It's dangerous."
Her superior had good reason to worry. Fallujah, in Anbar province, is the hotbed of the insurgency that had been attacking American forces throughout Iraq since April 2003. Some military call the city "the bomb factory" because so many suicide bombers were based there, and in the fall of 2004, two separate attacks on marine trucks in the area killed a total of 15 men. With the exception of major battles, it is the highways in Fallujah that pose the greatest day-to-day dangers, military experts agree. "It's a large, flat country," says military historian Bing West, "so everyone drives a car…but you don't know which among hundreds of thousands of drivers has the intention to blow himself and everyone else up."
By leaving early, Harding knew, the convoy would be on the highway while it was still daylight, making it a clearer target. Traveling before the 9 P.M. civilian curfew also increased the potential for attacks from the Iraqi drivers still on the road. Harding shared her superior's concerns, but neither of them had the authority to change course. Says Harding, "Nobody knew who to go to, to voice our opinions."
FIFTEEN MILES TO CAMP FALLUJAH
At 7:15 P.M., Saalman was trying furiously to complete a head count of the 14 women boarding the truck before it left CMOC for Camp Fallujah. Saalman, a devout Christian from Indiana's horse country with honey-blond hair and cornflower-blue eyes, loved the Corps. "I bleed green," she once told a fellow marine. Going through her list, she put a check next to the name of Navy Petty Officer First Class Regina Clark, 43, from Washington, probably her closest friend there—and the only nonmarine in the group. A single mother with an 18-year-old son heading to college, Clark was nearing the end of her second tour in Iraq. She often provided moral support for Saalman, who says, "I could trust her with pretty much anything."
Charette was there. So were Harding and Jimenez—although, as usual, they didn't converse or even make eye contact. "We weren't crazy about each other," Harding admits. She and a friend of Jimenez"s had gotten into a shoving match a few months back when the friend had defied Harding's orders. Like all marines, says Harding, "we had a lot of attitude."
Saalman continued down her list. She saw Diane Cardile, then 23, an easygoing private first class from Pennsylvania, and her two roommates at Camp Fallujah: Lance Corporal Laura Bringas, then 21, a woman from Arizona with a big, mischievous laugh, and Ramona Valdez, 20, an outspoken and well- respected corporal from the Bronx via the Dominican Republic.
Friends Lynn Beasley, then 20, and Christina Humphrey, 22 at the time, both lance corporals, were on the truck as well. Beasley, a punk-rock fan from Illinois with a high-energy personality, was sometimes called "Rock Star." Humphrey, from California, had earned the nickname "Hippie" for her spiritual take on the world, which didn't diminish her reputation for toughness: A few months earlier, she and Libby, who was also on the truck, had been working the CMOC checkpoint when snipers started taking potshots at the marines. Humphrey advanced without cover and fired, possibly taking out one of the insurgents. Her bravery earned her a medal for valor. Continuing down her list, Saalman checked off Corporal Teresa Fernandez, then 21, a small-arms technician from New Jersey, and Kodie Misiura, then 19, a quiet blond lance corporal from California who'd been considering going to college but instead decided to join the marines. Finally there was Oyoana Allende, then 21, a lance corporal from Illinois. She loved to salsa dance; once overweight, she'd lost 55 pounds just so she could become a marine.
Saalman put down her pen. Fourteen women now sat along two benches in the truck, known as a seven-ton, which was scheduled to pick up three more women at a checkpoint on the way back to base. The women faced out rather than toward each other, so they could look over the Kevlar-lined panels that ended just below eye level and scan for insurgents. Their convoy consisted of a Humvee filled with male marines in the lead, followed by the women's truck, then a second truck carrying male marines, and behind that two or three Humvees (the marines' recollections differ) with more men. As the seven-ton shifted into gear, the exhausted women were already thinking about the dinner they'd have at Camp Fallujah about 15 miles away; they had no way of knowing how much their lives would change in the next five minutes.
"THEY'RE All DEAD"
The convoy had been rolling down the highway for only a few minutes when Harding heard a fast exchange between her truck's driver and the gunner; it was something like "Are you going to shoot it or what?" An Iraqi car had pulled up alongside them. The marines in the lead Humvee had seen the car approaching and waved it off to the side of the road, but the car came barreling back toward the convoy.
Harding barely had time to process the driver's words when she heard the sound she'd feared since the moment she arrived in Iraq: the menacing hiss of a bomb about to go off. Then a deafening boom, the sound of four or five artillery shells likely laced with napalm exploding as the car rammed into the side of the truck. A fireball, its flames curling and curving, hurtled toward Harding. Then time came crashing to a near halt.
Immediately the truck caught fire. Libby, who was sitting a few places away from Harding, saw her seat mate, Saalman, go flying through the air, directly into the flames. Saalman looked up and saw her own boots high over her head as she catapulted. I'm next, thought Libby. This is really happening. I'm going to die. Harding tasted acrid smoke clogging her throat. Jimenez, who'd been thrown to the floor of the truck, felt a deathly flash of cold. Then she, too, like nearly everyone on the truck, was flung out onto the hard, gravelly ground as the force of the blast pushed the truck over onto its side.
From the second truck in the convoy, Marine Sergeant Kent Padmore heard a screeching of tires and an explosion, then his own vehicle braked to a stop so quickly that all dozen or so men in it went tumbling to the floor. When Padmore sat up, he saw the women's truck in flames about 250 yards away. A flight medic back in Miami, Padmore, then 38, had been good friends with Saalman, Clark and Humphrey. Immediately he jumped from his truck and ran toward the burning seven-ton, barely aware of the bullets zinging past him; the insurgents had staged an ambush to coincide with the car bomb.
There's no way, he thought as he ran. They're all dead. He stopped—it was useless to continue. But then he pushed forward. Keep going, he told himself. He thought of how Clark couldn't wait to go backpacking with her son when she got back to the U.S., about tough-as-nails Humphrey, and about Saalman, the music-loving beauty. It can't be, he said to himself, and kept running as fast as he could.
Just as Padmore reached the scene, he saw Saalman staggering toward him, her charred, flayed hands held up before her, her eyes vacant in a blackened face. She'd lost her rifle during the explosion. "Sally, pull yourself together," he said. "You are not going to die. I promise: You are not going to die. But we need some leadership." He watched her expression change instantly from shock to rage. "Somebody give me a ****ing weapon!" she screamed. "I need a ****ing weapon!" The adrenaline pumping through her body obviously masked her pain. Padmore handed her his own M16 and headed off to find other wounded marines, with the sound of Saalman firing her gun toward the insurgents ringing in his ears.
Harding, meanwhile, had rolled off the truck with only minor burns to her hand but quickly realized she, too, didn't have her weapon. With machine-gun fire all around her, she ran behind the flaming seven-ton to take cover, and there she came upon Cardile and Bringas. Both had badly burned hands, and their faces were blackened from the fire. Dazed, their throats raw from inhalation burns, they followed Harding to the shelter of a junkyard wall where other female marines were gathering.
Libby, who'd been knocked unconscious in the blast, awoke about 10 feet from the truck with her face planted in the earth. She looked up to see, inches from her nose, the unconscious body of Clark. "Come on, girl, you've got to get up," she yelled to Clark, then again, louder, "Girl, we've got to get up now." Clark didn't respond. Finally, Libby, suffering from a broken collarbone and a dislocated neck, shoved her hands under Clark's shoulders and began dragging her toward shelter. She got about eight feet before a male marine ran up and pulled her away, screaming at her to join the other female marines for her own safety. Looking behind her, her heart pounding, Libby trotted toward the wall, a horrible thought haunting each step: Was she leaving behind a fellow marine to die?
About eight minutes after the attack, there were five or six female marines huddled behind the junkyard wall. Harding, after guiding Bringas and Cardile to shelter, now started to venture out again to retrieve a body lying a few feet from the truck—and hesitated as she heard the bullets flying all around her. Then her training kicked in: Leave no one behind. It's something a marine is taught until she knows it the way she knows her home address, her best friend's phone number or the Lord's Prayer. She ran toward the body. It was a woman, but the burns and impact wounds had marred her features beyond recognition. Harding looked at the name tag on the uniform pocket. Charette. The ex-cheerleader.
"Charette!" she called. Nothing. "Charette! Charette!" The young woman's body was lifeless. Harding's throat clenched into a tight knot, and she kneeled there, motionless, for close to 10 seconds.
Harding knew she had to move on to see if there was anyone she could save. That was when she spotted Jimenez hobbling along the roadside, exposed and in danger.
Tossed to the ground by the explosion, Jimenez had lain unconscious for a good five minutes. When she came to, she'd been confused and scared. Now blood was pouring from a gash above her eye so heavily that she could barely see, and the skin was hanging off one hand like parts of a dangling, fleshy glove. Somehow, she'd made out the shape of a lone marine standing a few yards away. She moved forward even though her right leg shouldn't have been able to support her: A piece of shrapnel had ripped away about half of her inner thigh, and she was rapidly losing blood. Praying, cursing, everything but crying, Jimenez headed for the marine as if her life depended on it, which it did.
As she got closer, Jimenez realized the marine was Harding—someone she never thought she'd be glad to see. With her uninjured hand, she grabbed Harding's. Whatever tension had existed between them had vaporized with the blast.
Leaning on her comrade, Jimenez staggered to one of the backup trucks. Soon Harding and the other less-wounded marines—including Libby and Humphrey—began loading the more severely hurt women onto the remaining seven-ton truck. The injuries were horrifying: "We were all looking at each other, thinking, ****, I look like that—or worse," recalls Cardile. Huge swaths of the skin on her and her friends' faces had been eviscerated. Bringas says her left hand "looked like a hotdog that had been left in the microwave too long." Parts of Allende's skin had melted away, and her flak jacket was drenched with blood. Cardile's burns left her so sensitive that "the air that hit my face when the truck started to move almost killed me."
Soon all the women were on the truck with three exceptions: Valdez, Clark and Charette. Charette was in one of the two Humvees; a recovery team of marines picked up Valdez and Clark. Finally, the seven-ton packed with 11 women and a handful of male marines raced toward Charlie Surgical, the medical unit at Camp Fallujah. Only en route did Jimenez get a full look at her wounds. "I had a huge hole in my leg, like something out of Saving Private Ryan," she says. To Padmore, who was treating injured marines, the wound looked like a flower: bits and pieces of skin opened and layered around the injury. Harding, who'd been intent on remaining calm, realized she could look deep into the sinews of Jimenez's leg, down to the bone. She cradled Jimenez in her arms while Padmore applied the tourniquet that would stanch the heavy bleeding (and, doctors would later say, save her life). Padmore was moved by Harding's strength. "She disregarded her pain to give support to a critically wounded marine," he says. "Had it not been for her, Jimenez might have given up. With your femoral artery severed the way hers was, you could die. But it helps to have someone telling you to hang on; we'll make it through this together."
There wasn't much noise on the truck—there was no crying and little talking. At one point Saalman, the same woman who'd been screaming bloody murder for a weapon just minutes earlier, broke the silence by singing "America the Beautiful," then "Amazing Grace." For some women it was a needed balm; for others it was excruciating, mere words that meant nothing in the face of what they'd just seen.
Jimenez, barely conscious, remembered that it was her husband's special day. "You have to call him and tell him I say happy birthday," she said to Harding. Calling out for a pen, Harding replied, "All right, all right, I'll do it," and wrote the number of Jimenez's husband on the palm of her hand. When the truck arrived at Camp Fallujah, it flew straight to Charlie Surgical, where a team of surgeons, their faces blanching as the women piled off the truck, awaited. "I didn't know if I was going to make it. I was so scared," Jimenez says.
As doctors prepared to take Jimenez to surgery, Harding explained that she'd have to wait outside. No! thought Jimenez. "I could see in her eyes she wanted to stay with me," says Harding, who wanted just as badly to remain by her side. But she had no choice. Harding watched Jimenez being wheeled off and wondered whether she'd ever see her fellow marine again.
CLOSING THE WOUNDS
Burns are notoriously vicious wounds, slow to heal as well as excruciatingly painful, so much so that in the case of second- and third-degree injuries, even the maximum amount of morphine considered safe is of little help —it may dull the torture, but the pain is always there, all-consuming, searing. To make matters worse, the treatment itself is brutal: Burn patients must undergo a painful shower to cleanse the wounds, then get scrubbed down in a process called debridement, which peels away dead layers of skin and is so agonizing that it must be performed under general anesthesia. Even being wrapped in sterile bandages is almost more contact than a burn patient can bear. Because the treatment is repeated every few days, patients know what's coming and learn to dread it.
The night of the attack, Jimenez was flown from Iraq to Germany, where, having been totally anesthetized, she spent a few days in blissful unconsciousness. She was then moved again, to San Antonio, where the Brooke Army Medical Center has a world-class burn unit. Wrapped like a mummy in bandages around her head, leg and arm, she could at least take consolation in the fact that she wasn't alone in San Antonio. On the other side of the curtains surrounding her bed lay Cardile, Bringas and Allende. The women were suffering from second- and third-degree burns: Bringas would wake up horrified some days with bits of her skin stuck to the pillow, and Cardile's face, particularly around her mouth, was constantly oozing.
Jimenez, Cardile and Bringas had always been able to make one another laugh back in Iraq. But no one was laughing in the room those first few weeks; when they heard each other, it was mostly the sound of crying from the agony of their treatments. "If Cardile was screaming, I felt her pain because I knew exactly what she was going through," says Jimenez. At the same time, each woman was isolated in a bubble of her own suffering. "It was hard," says Cardile. "You couldn't take care of yourself, never mind take care of somebody else." All they could do was call out to each other: "Are you hurting? I'm hurting too."
In one way, Jimenez was lucky: Her husband had flown to San Antonio to be with her as soon as he heard she'd been injured. As a marine, he was aware of what her life in Iraq had been like and could even imagine the attack; he never left her side, helping her to the bathroom and washing her hair. Even so, says Jimenez, "he didn't know what I was feeling, and that bothered me a lot. I would get mad. He'd be like, oh, you're going to be OK, and I felt like, I am not going to be ****ing OK. Cardile and Bringas, they knew how I felt. Just having someone understand what you're going through, it's comforting."
What Jimenez didn't know for almost a week was the fate of the rest of her fellow marines. She figured out that three other women had ended up in San Antonio —Beasley, Saalman and Fernandez —but she wondered about the rest, especially Charette. About a week after Jimenez arrived at the medical center, she got a visit from Fernandez, who had burns on more than 13 percent of her body. Fernandez had been particularly tight with Charette, so after a few minutes of chatting, Jimenez broached the question she really wanted to ask.
"Hey, where's Charette?" she said. Fernandez looked down at her hard, and then glanced away. "I can't talk about it," she replied. Fernandez was aware that the military doctors sometimes withheld bad news until patients were on the road to recovery, but she wanted Jimenez to know the truth. She gave a hint: She shook her head.
Fernandez's message came across loud and clear. "I started hyperventilating and saying, 'Oh God, oh God, oh God,'" says Jimenez. "I felt so bad that I had survived and she hadn't." There wasn't much comfort Fernandez could offer. "I understand," she said simply. "It hurt me, too."
After a while, Fernandez got up to leave. Her husband was waiting for her in the hall. Overwhelmed by what she'd just seen of Jimenez's injuries as well as by what she'd had to say, she passed out in his arms.
All in all, six marines died on June 23, 2005, in Fallujah. Three of them were men: Lance Corporal Veashna Muy, 20, the seven-ton's gunner; Chad Powell, a 22-year-old corporal riding in the truck; and Corporal Carlos Pineda, 23, who'd been in one of the security Humvees. Pineda was shot while giving cover to Harding as she and other marines hoisted Jimenez into the truck. Harding heard him gasp as the bullet made contact.
Three women died that day, making it one of the three costliest incidents for American military women in a single attack. (In World War II, a Japanese kamikaze pilot killed six army nurses onboard a hospital boat; in 1991, three women from a National Guard unit died when a SCUD missile hit their barracks in Bahrain.)
One of the fatalities was Clark, the 43-year-old single mom whom Libby had tried to pull away from the truck. Another was Charette, the 21-year-old ex-cheerleader, who, it turns out, had still been alive, but barely, when Harding came upon her. As a male marine took Charette in his arms, she'd hoarsely whispered, "Help me," before going limp. She died later that evening at Charlie Surgical. Valdez, the outspoken corporal from the Bronx, was killed immediately when the suicide bomber hit the seven-ton.
From the moment she arrived at the San Antonio military hospital, Bringas had started asking about Valdez. "I could have sworn I saw her back in Fallujah," she says. Bringas had been at the hospital a month and had undergone two skin-graft surgeries on her hands before a chaplain finally broke the news to her. Cardile, who was in the bathroom at the time, heard a scream. That was all she needed to realize that Bringas had been told.
As for Saalman, she knew the day of the attack that her dear friend Clark had died. Saalman and Padmore had been waiting outside Charlie Surgical when Padmore asked, "Where's Regi?" Saalman's hand flew up to her face, and tears came to her eyes. "Oh my God, Regi," she said. They looked at each other without saying another word. They knew that if Clark wasn't at the surgical tent, they'd lost her.
Weeks after the ambush, every female marine who'd been on the truck was awarded a Purple Heart, an honor that also confers financial benefits. (Many of the women have also received promotions.) Some of the marines at the San Antonio burn unit didn't feel ready for the ceremony. Their wounds —emotional and physical —were too fresh. "I really didn't want the Purple Heart," says Jimenez, who has since come to value the honor. "It was going to remind me for the rest of my life of how terrible that day was."
To the astonishment of some of the women, Douglas O'Dell Jr., the two-star general who bestowed their Purple Hearts, wept during the ceremony, at which several male marines also received medals. "I looked at him with sympathy or pity —I'm pretty sure our incident was emotional for everybody," says Jimenez. "But at the same time, I thought, you've gotta stay strong for us. And why should it be memorable because we're women? I don't want special privileges because I'm a woman."
It turns out that Jimenez misinterpreted O'Dell's sentiments: He was moved, he says, not by special sympathy for the women, but because he saw standing before him an unprecedented display of equality of the sexes. That day in Fallujah had been a "crystallizing moment," he says. Military leaders had always believed women marines would conduct themselves just as bravely as the men under deadly attack, he explains, but they'd never before had an opportunity quite like this one to prove themselves. "It's the difference between believing in a miracle," he says, "and then seeing one."
BACK IN ACTION
The machinery of the military pauses only so long to allow for grief, and eventually its gears started moving the women back into service. Still emotionally battered by what they'd just gone through, Saalman, Beasley and Fernandez were released from the hospital on an outpatient basis within a week of the attack and eventually sent off to various bases around the world. Harding, Humphrey and Misiura stayed in Iraq for a few more months, and Libby went home to Niceville, Florida, where she had surgery on her dislocated neck. Fernandez joined her husband at a military station in North Carolina, leaving Jimenez, Bringas, Cardile and Allende behind in the San Antonio burn unit.
In the long year to come, the women who'd suffered the worst burns displayed a kind of courage that occurs in hospital wards, not on battlefields. When they went for physical therapy, "I never saw them break down," says Major Lynn Burns, an occupational therapist. "I've seen big, strapping guys bawl their eyes out undergoing the same kinds of treatment. These women just kept it together." She wasn't surprised. "Being a marine is tough," she says, "but being a woman marine, you have to be even tougher."
Sergeant Shane Elder, a medic and occupational-therapy assistant who worked most closely with the women, says that what impressed him was how they unfailingly supported one another. At one point, he noticed that Bringas was having a particularly tough time. Grieving for Valdez and frustrated by a medical setback caused by an infection of her wounds, she would sometimes be reluctant to socialize when Cardile and Allende visited her room. "What do you want to do?" Cardile would ask. "Nothing," Bringas would reply. Cardile refused to take no for an answer—she'd put on a movie or try to make Bringas laugh. "Just because she didn't want visitors doesn't mean she wasn't going to get them," says Elder. "Those women were not going to leave her alone to be angry. You know, it's great to visit someone who's all fun. But to stay when someone isn't talking to you as you sit there in awkward silence—try that one time." Cardile's sister, Nicole, points out that Bringas returned the favor: Whenever Cardile was feeling down, Bringas would come by, and they'd talk and talk about the things they couldn't discuss with anyone else.
As the women grew healthier, they encountered another test: facing the public with their scarred and battered faces. "We have to carry these scars for the rest of our lives," says Jimenez. "You want to feel good about yourself, and if you've got some big scar on your face, it's traumatic."
On one of their first outings from the hospital, she and Cardile treated themselves to a meal at a San Antonio diner. At a nearby table sat a mother with her kids, who pointed and stared. Before the marines even had time to notice, Cardile's sister Nicole jumped up. "You can ask what happened," she told the family. "These girls got blown up in Iraq." The mother started apologizing. "I'm not mad," Nicole said. "We see you pointing—just ask."
"That was that," recalls Cardile. "We had a good time for the rest of the day. We drank beer, and we laughed and hung out." The incident made them feel strong, and Cardile resolved to do the same the next time she was put on the spot. Rather than allowing herself to wallow in shame, she would feel pride.
Almost a year after they said their good-byes outside Charlie Surgical, Jimenez and Harding finally saw each other again. They were reunited when Glamour invited them, along with Saalman, to San Antonio to visit the three women still remaining for treatment and physical therapy: Allende, Bringas and Cardile. "That girl saved my life," Jimenez said softly when Harding joined her at a bar in the hotel they'd made their headquarters. Their eyes locked and they smiled—there had been no time to exchange e-mail addresses after the attack, and they hadn't been in touch since that terrible day. In fact, few of the 11 survivors had contacted each other since they'd left the hospital. "I think we were afraid of what we'd find," says Libby.
Seeing how well Jimenez was doing—her face was mostly healed, and although her leg often hurts, she can easily walk—was a huge relief to Harding, who'd been having nightmares since the attack. She'd been thinking about all the women on the truck. Sometimes she saw Charette's little brother in her dreams; other times a phantom explosion woke her up with a start. "It's one thing to hear through the grapevine that they're doing fine," she says, "but it's another to see it with your own eyes."
What happened in Fallujah that day was a disaster for the women, but in some ways it was also a small, tragic triumph. The female marines proved not only that they could endure the worst, but that they could continue to serve. A week after the attack, Harding asked to be put back on the checkpoint. (Her request was denied.)
Harding—who believes the insurgents knew which truck in the convoy would be carrying women—worried that the suicide bombing might destroy the morale of other women in the Corps, but she needn't have. On the evening of June 23, as word of the disaster spread, a freckle-faced young female marine stationed in Ramadi, a city near Fallujah, had approached Colonel Robert Chase, who was helping run crisis control at the command center, to say she urgently needed to talk to him. He told her the timing wasn't good, but she insisted. Reluctantly, Chase stepped outside his office to meet with her—and in the hallway, he encountered about 10 more female marines. "Sir, we know we've had women killed," said the marine who'd first approached him. "We have to replace them—we want to go." Chase was stunned. "I'll be candid, it was one of the most emotional and profound moments for me," he says. "I don't often work with women as an infantry officer, but at that moment, there were no women there—there were just marines." (Some of those women did get the checkpoint duty—and the military, says Harding, added more security vehicles to the women's daily convoy.)
On an individual level, the attack provided a victory, too, but of the saddest kind. Jimenez—who would give anything to turn back time, to have the convoy leave two hours later or for Charette to have been sitting two inches from where she was—says her life has a richness she couldn't have appreciated before. "It's sad to say, but this brings things together. You realize the importance of love, support, friendship." Her relationship with Bringas and Cardile is deeper, her understanding of her husband's devotion more profound. "This broke me for sure," she says. "But I'm stronger for having been broken and coming back."
When Jimenez went to see her family in New Jersey, local reporters rushed to interview her. Many asked what she thought about women in combat. Jimenez considered the question almost an insult. "I put it in quick words," she says. "I told them, 'I'm a female, but I'm also a marine.'" And to her, that said it all.
A note to all: I notice that the author and glamour mag forget to spell Marine Marine. A correction notice being sent out ASAP.
I sent a very nice email to Glamour mag to make that they correct their spelling or have USMC spell ck install :D . No can do. but that makes another story 4 another time.