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06-12-03, 01:03 PM #1
A woman goes to war in a man's world
AN HONEST WOMEN: pc politicians take notice
A woman goes to war in a man's world
By Kirsten Scharnberg
Tribune staff reporter
May 18, 2003
After learning that I was to be the Tribune's only female embedded journalist, I promised myself never to write the woman-on-the-front-lines story. It just wouldn't be an issue. I would find a way to blend in. I wouldn't be treated differently because I wouldn't let anyone treat me differently.
Wrong. I got my first inkling of this on the chilly March night that my unit-- the 1st Battalion of the 187th Infantry Regiment-- arrived at Camp New Jersey, one of the rudimentary tent cities that had sprung up in the Kuwaiti desert just a short Humvee ride from Iraq.
The 187th, part of the storied 101st Airborne Division, is an infantry rifle unit, which means there are no women in the ranks because U.S. servicewomen are not allowed on the front lines. So it was me and about 800 men standing in the inky desert that night, listening to a gruff first sergeant bellow out the rules. We had been traveling for several days, so I was in a sleep deprived daze, largely tuning out what was being said. But when talk turned to the showers --really just a few spouts inside a filthy single-wide trailer --my ears perked up.
"We'll designate a female shower time for the reporter," the first sergeant said. "We'll post a guard for her so she can use the showers privately once a day. I'll let you know the time we decide."
I hadn't showered in about four days. I anxiously awaited the announcement of my special shower hour. A day passed with no word. Two days. A week. Finally, I took matters into my own hands and hiked the couple kilometers to another camp where there were female soldiers and thus female shower hours.
It was a minor thing, and I actually grew to relish that solitary 5 a.m. hike through the desert haze. But it made me realize how singled out I was, how the littlest things would be the ones to trip me up and cause me to do the very thing I had wanted to avoid: stand out.
Once the war started, those moments and circumstances only became more common. Hours after my unit had set out for Iraq, an alert came over the Humvee radio that a surface-to-surface missile had hit near our convoy. It was believed to be a chemical attack, and the voice on the radio shouted for everyone to get into their chemical suits.
Everyone jumped out of the vehicles and--because those chemical suits are oppressively hot in the desert heat--first stripped to their underwear before wiggling into them. Except for me. For the next three days I thought I would die from the mistake of putting my chemical suit on over my clothes because I didn't want to stand in my underwear in front of an entire infantry unit in broad daylight.
The modesty had to go. Try finding a place to go to the bathroom where no one can see you in the middle of a flat, not-a-tree-or-bush-in-sight expanse of sand. Keep in mind that I had finally used the cover of darkness to shed the clothes underneath my chemical suit, which is a bulky set of interconnected garments that had to be almost entirely removed in order for me to do my business.
One day--sick to death of having to pee in front of men I'd later have to attempt to interview with professional grace--I rejoiced to find a little lean- to dash behind. As I reveled in the first privacy I'd had in weeks, two Apache helicopters flew over so low that I could see the shocked expressions on the pilots' faces.
And these were the little dilemmas. I had made a pact with myself that no matter how tired I was or how physically strenuous a mission became, I would never let one of the soldiers lug my rucksack or equipment for me. I wanted them to see me as completely capable of pulling my own weight, as a traveling companion who was not a liability but an equal.
One night, hating myself, I broke that rule. It was pitch black and we were taking constant mortar fire at a checkpoint just outside Najaf, the holy Shiite city in central Iraq. I had my rucksack, which weighed well over 70 pounds, my computer and satellite phone, my gas mask container, several bottles of water and some food.
I had been bumming rides with military vehicles for a little over a day to get up to the embattled city, and both my computer and phone were out of power, so I had added to my load a battery taken from a blown-out car, hoping that, with some alligator clips and a power inverter, I could charge my equipment.
The soldiers I had met up with said I could accompany them into the city--a 4- mile hike. I didn't know whether I could hike 4 feet with all that gear, let alone 4 miles, but we set out.
At about mile 2 1/2, I was about to give out. I was contemplating saying something needlessly melodramatic like, "Go ahead, save yourselves," when a soldier asked, "Ma'am, can I carry that battery for you?"
All my resolve failed. I handed the battery to the young man--who already was lugging a much heavier load than I was, including a fully loaded M-4 assault weapon that he would be expected to use in case of an attack.
The decision nagged at me for days. Not only had I not been able to pull my own weight, I also had potentially put that young soldier at risk. What if he had not been able to aim his weapon effectively had we been ambushed in that wooded expanse of territory approaching Najaf? What if he had fallen on the rough terrain and misfired his weapon, injuring someone?
As tough as I think I was out there, as proud as I am to have lived for more than two months in conditions I never dreamed possible, those questions bother me still.
Back in Chicago recently, the Tribune had a welcome-home party for a bunch of us who had covered the war. A female editor asked me whether my experience had given me an opinion about putting female soldiers into the infantry and on the front lines.
I told her about the car battery and also about the many times I watched big, tough, burly male soldiers nearly collapse during 10-kilometer hikes with rucksacks, ammunition, TOW missiles, radios and machine guns.
I'm not qualified to say that no woman could do that job, but I suspect that it would be a rare one who could. I had run a marathon not long before the war and worked out almost every day. I grew up on an Iowa farm where manual labor was part of the bargain. But I had been bested by a car battery, and when I handed my load to that soldier, I admitted that I never could have cut it in the Infantry.
06-12-03, 01:34 PM #2
Photo of Kirsten Scharnberg, when she was traveling with the 101st Airborne troops.
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