Mideast Stars and Stripes
May 4, 2005

Marine Raid Breaks Gender Barrier

By Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes

KARMAH, Iraq - Lance Cpl. Erin Libby doesn't want to be treated the same as her male Marine Corps counterparts. But she does want to be treated as an equal - even in combat.

In a way, she got her chance last weekend when Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment led a raid into the city of Karmah in search of high-value targets and hidden weapons.

“We're out here, and we're rocking on the front line,” said Libby, a 21-year-old from Niceville, Fla., who pinned on the rank of lance corporal during a break in the mission.

In all, 14 women from Combat Logistics Battalion 8 were called away from their usual jobs of supplying ammunition, food, water, fuel and mail for the three-day offensive that kicked off in the pre-dawn hours Saturday about 15 miles northeast of Fallujah.

Cultural sensitivities precluded male Marines from searching women, so the female Marines were meant to deflate fears of Iraqi men and women, said the battalion executive officer, Maj. Larry Miller. It was a first in Iraq to have female Marines embedded at the lowest levels of infantry companies and working alongside their male counterparts, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jill St. John, 39, an embark officer with CLB-8.

“This is history. This is huge for us,” St. John said. “I've been in the Marine Corps for 18 years, and this is my first opportunity to be out with an infantry company. Even five years ago, the Marine Corps wouldn't be doing this. This is a major change in how we think women can be used in the military.”

While female Marines were used in similar fashion during missions in Afghanistan, they were not fully integrated with line companies, St. John said.

“It wasn't quite as dynamic as this. They'd wait at a camp in the rear and were called in when needed, often called in for resupply,” such as bringing in food and water.

“I'm so sick of hearing females can't do this and females can't do that. Blah, blah, blah,” said Cpl. Rachel Bergstrong, 20, of Cumming, Ga. “We're in it as much as the grunts, and we love it.”

The battalion's Lima and India companies absorbed the women into their ranks, giving them the primary mission to search women and children suspected of hiding anything. But the female Marines' presence was not intended to show a softer side of the Marine Corps, said Capt. Mark Liston, commander of India Company.

“They're still a fighting force for us,” he said. “With them, we can grab a wife [of a suspected insurgent], for example, put the screws to her, and find out where the husband might be hiding. And while it hasn't been used here, [the insurgency has] been known to use female suicide bombers,” Liston said.

But there were times in which the softer side appeared in both the male and female Marines. When they weren't raiding homes and businesses, the Marines were on humanitarian missions, handing out food, water and toys, especially to the hordes of children who flocked to the streets when the Humvees rolled in.

“Whenever I read about these humanitarian missions, I always thought it was so cheesy,” Libby said after tossing out handfuls of stuffed animals. “Now I'm the one sounding cheesy, but I like this. It makes you feel good inside.”

They're often referred to as the WMs, or women Marines. They hate it, and the crass distortions of the acronym some say they've heard.

“We're Marines, bottom line,” said Cpl. Dawn Lansberry, 31.

“I'm out here to prove a point,” Libby said. “A lot of males think females are weak. It's time to shine, and I'm going to leave here golden.”