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thedrifter
08-08-07, 08:40 AM
Author Pays Tribute to Women in Combat

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, August 8, 2007

By Donita Naylor

Journal Staff Writer


WESTERLY A disco ball hangs in the Westerly Yacht Club ballroom where about 180 people last night listened to Kirsten Holmstedt read aloud and sign autographs.

In Iraq, helicopters are topped with what looks like a disco ball to confuse missiles targeting the heat of the engine.

Holmstedt’s book, Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq, describes how the device confused a missile and saved the lives of two Army pilots — one of them Robin Brown, the nation’s first female pilot to survive being shot down in battle.

At the yacht club, a DVD player projected pictures of the 12 women profiled in Holmstedt’s book. Three of them joined her last night to talk about the book, answer questions and sign autographs.

One was Vernice “Junk” Armour, the first female African-American pilot to fly in combat. She opened the program by describing the band of sisters not as a tight-knit unit of soldiers, but the largest force of military women in combat the nation has ever seen.

Armour cited recent figures, saying 167,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have been filled by women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

“This book is a tribute to the accomplishments that these women have made,” Armour said. So far, 80 have lost their lives and 500 have been wounded, more than in any other war.

Armour introduced Holmstedt, who acknowledged the contributions of women who served their country in previous wars, before they were allowed into battle, and remembered the loss of Holly Charette, a Rhode Island woman who was the first female Marine to be killed in Iraq.

Holmstedt read from the chapter about Lance Cpl. Carrie Blais, a heavy equipment mechanic until she volunteered to patrol with Marines because they needed women to search Iraqi women.

Blais sat in the front row, listening to the account of what happened after her unit was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.


“There’s someone there,” Blais yelled to the staff sergeant.

“Shoot,” the staff sergeant yelled back.

Without hesitation, Blais fired two shots, hitting her target in the right leg. His leg jerked and he fell. The AK-47 landed a short distance away. The Iraqi started crawling toward his weapon.

Finish it, the staff sergeant yelled.

Blais fired two more shots. The Iraqi stopped moving as his white robe turned red.

Holmstedt, 44, started the book as part of her master’s degree in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She had been living in Jacksonville, N.C., next to the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.

“I saw women going off to war in record numbers” and listened to the debate about women in combat, said Holmstedt, who grew up in Mystic, Conn., and went to the beach and played tennis in Westerly.

When women started coming back, Holmstedt’s curiosity grew more intense. What was it like? How equipped were they, physically and emotionally, for combat? She started interviewing women returning from battle, earning their trust.

“They must have been a little anxious about what my agenda was,” Holmstedt said Monday after autographing copies of her book at the Borders in Garden City. To be accepted in their branches of the service, she said, women have learned not to play the female card, that success comes from working hard, proving their courage and not calling attention to themselves.

Holmstedt didn’t have an agenda. “I really didn’t know what to think, that’s why I wrote the book,” she said.

“But I’ve certainly formed an opinion. Now I feel like if they’re willing and able to serve, we should let them serve.”

Holmstedt said the women see their work as a job, like going to the office. Only, their jobs involve configuring bombs or commanding a squadron of C-130 Hercules cargo planes, escaping from a crashed helicopter seconds before the enemy surrounds it, blowing up a mosque, stepping over dead Marines, driving a truck or ambulance on a convoy route that can take three hours or two days depending on how many Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) they encounter.

“When they talk about it, it’s kind of matter-of-fact,” Holmstedt said. “One of my biggest challenges in writing the book was to show it with the proper amount of drama.

“To them it’s no big deal. I had to show that it is a big deal.

“I’m hoping this book will provide a service to women in the military,” said Holmstedt, who has been invited to speak at West Point next month. She has started to receive inquiries from people interested in using the book for women’s studies.

Standing in the autograph line, which nearly encircled the room, were Regina and Ed Roberts of Coventry, Holly Charette’s parents. They weren’t sure they could get through this event, coming only two years after the death of their daughter.

They seemed emotional as they moved up the line, but by the time they had met the pilot with her Purple Heart pin, Gunnery Sgt. Rosie Noel, and the veteran who wanted them to have a coin she had made commemorating “Marines who happen to be women,” and hearing from Holmstedt that she wanted to talk to them for her next book, they seemed to find some comfort.

“To them it’s no big deal.

I had to show that

it is a big deal.”
Kirsten Holmstedt,
Band of Sisters author

dnaylor@projo.com

Ellie