Women in Combat: On the Ground in Iraq
by Michele Norris

All Things Considered, October 2, 2007 Women serving in the U.S. military make up about 10 percent of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although they aren't assigned to ground combat units, they are experiencing combat nonetheless.

This week, All Things Considered is reporting on women and war. Three women who have served in Iraq share their experiences in a war zone and their thoughts on the service of women in the military.

Three Women Warriors

Sgt. Griselda Benavides and Lance Cpl. Mary Carnes are Marines based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. They were deployed to Anbar province from February 2006 to February 2007.

Army Staff Sgt. Laurie Hawkins from Fort Bragg, N.C., served in Anbar and Baghdad from August 2004 to June 2005.

Unique Roles for Women

Even though the women were not assigned to ground combat units, they all experienced mortar fire, improvised explosive devices and other attacks.

"In Iraq, the way that the war is, anywhere you are is the front lines," says Carnes.

Despite the danger, the women say they have been able to play unique roles in Iraq, both in and out of the military.

Benavides says there was a need for women search teams.

"Males [were] disguising themselves as females because they knew that they weren't going to get searched," she says. "So they were crossing the checkpoints, hiding stuff on themselves. That has gone down a lot, because they know that we're searching the women."

Reaching Out to Iraqi Women

Carnes says she feels that female troops have done a lot of good in Iraq by reaching out to Iraqi women.

"We help the Iraqi women understand what we as American women have. For me that was an eye-opener," Carnes says.

"I had heard that Iraqi women didn't really have all the privileges or all of the freedoms that we have, but it's not something that really clicked with me until I actually saw it, and I saw the way they were treated by their husbands and the way that they didn't really have any freedoms," she says.

Combating Prejudice

Still, being a woman in the military brings extra challenges, particularly when it comes to the curiosity and, sometimes, derision of Iraqis who don't understand or approve of women in uniform.

Hawkins says she heard Iraqis talking about her, asking why she was in the country and not at home with her husband and children.

"I tell them that I'm a soldier, and I'm here to fight with my fellow soldiers, and it took them a long time to grasp that concept," she says.

The women stress that they receive the same training, and have the same experiences and worries as their male counterparts, and only want to be treated equally.

"Enlisting into the Army, being a female, you really have to know that that's what you want to do," Hawkins says. "If you're going to sign up, you've got to know that, you've got to be thick-skinned … You've got to suck it up and be like a man."


Ellie