American Amazons: Hiding in Plain-Jane Sight

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Hospital Corpsman Shannon Crowley, 22, assigned to the Female Engagement Team with the 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Regimental Combat team II, sits on her bed before being sent out on a mission to Kunjak in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, Nov. 12, 2010.

Until last Thursday, the Pentagon barred women from roughly a quarter-million jobs involving combat. Coincidentally – but, interestingly — that’s about the same number of women who have gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 11 years.

Whatever your opinion on those two conflicts, they were the fulcrum that has lifted women into the combat arms. “Over more than a decade of war,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, before lifting the ban by scrawling his name across the bottom of a two-page order, “they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism.”

But this was no secret. Men and women who have served together in both war zones have been discussing it for years. Out at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, hundreds of young officers, largely from the Army, have been sitting down to talk with the Combat Studies Institute about what they experienced during their time in Afghanistan or Iraq (and, in many cases, both).

Children look at a female U.S. soldier on patrol in Pachir wa Agam in Nangarhar

REUTERS / Erik De Castro

U.S. Army Specialist Erica Taliaferro on patrol in in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, last March.

The discussions are wide-ranging, covering a multitude of topics. The subject of women in combat routinely surfaces, often without any prompting by the interviewer. That’s what gives these stories of women waging war their power. Many go unnamed, nothing specified but rank…and gender.

It’s worth noting that in years of reading these interviews, perhaps 95% of the men and women who bring up the topic expressed no doubt that some women are ready, willing and able for combat.

Unlike most of what has been said over the past several days, these aren’t senior Pentagon officials, op-ed columnists, lawmakers, or other assorted pundits and chin-strokers. These women actually did it.

The Veteran NCO’s View…

Command Sergeant Major Darrin Bohn said he was amazed at the first woman – an intelligence officer — he served with in an infantry battalion during his 23 years in uniform. She was, he said, “deeply integrated” into the unit’s combat mission in Iraq. “I don’t want to sound like a male chauvinist jackass, but she was that smart and was immediately respected by the other guys for her knowledge and her know-how,” he said of her. “It really didn’t seem to matter.”

He liked her initiative. “She had control of a Predator and actually fired a Hellfire missile from Camp Fallujah to where we were running through the objective area, where she had seen some folks running around,” he recalled “She was running back and forth to the Marine TOC [tactical operations center], tapping into some of the national assets, feeding them to the S2 [intelligence] guy and to the battalion commander so we could have a better and bigger picture of what was going on around us – the movements, some of the voice intercepts and so on.”

“They Did Very Well”

Female Marines Take On Challenges in Afghanistan

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Not their fathers’ corps: three female Marines in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, in 2010.

Lines blurred between combat and not, especially in military-police units. 1st Sergeant Christopher Fox of the Iowa National Guard arrived in Iraq in 2003 as part of a military police company that guarded 11,000 Iraqi prisoners during their deployment at several prisons (but not the infamous Abu Ghraib). “Most of the bad Iraqis in our system knew the seven words you can’t say on TV, according to George Carlin, and the females heard those all day long,” he said. “I know that if you’re a female inside the 20-foot wall and those are the only seven words you hear all day long and then you have people grabbing your crotch and your chest all day long, you might be driven to drink too.”

But he was impressed. “I think I had 11 females and seven of them were doing MP duty. We could have very easily ended up in a situation where one of them snapped,” he said. “We supported [a key] mission with five of those females, and they did very well. It’s just that that could have been a potential for disaster as well.”

“Tough as Woodpecker Lips”

Major Brad Lewis, an Army chaplain, was in Iraq from 2009-10 and remembers seeing a female Army chaplain in action. “We sent her out to these little…FOBs [forward operating bases],” he recalled. “There would be something going on and we needed a chaplain out there and she’d raise her hand, `Let me go.’ `Okay.’ We had to make some arrangements. `Where is she going to sleep when she’s out there?’ She was just hard charging; this girl was as tough as woodpecker lips. I think she slept in a MRAP the whole time she was out there. She threw down her sleeping bag and crashed in a vehicle.”

“Very Competent, Smart and Bright”

Iraqis, as well as Americans, had doubts about women serving in traditionally-male military billets. Retired Army Colonel Dale Eikmeier remembers being assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2005-06 with a female Navy helicopter pilot. “The Iraqis were all male and they’re very polite but you can tell there is this cultural inhibition about taking this female Navy helicopter pilot too seriously,” he said.

“Over time, and it didn’t take that long, they realized she was professional — and most of these Iraqis had military training in their background — so they could respect the fact she was in the military and she was a professional,” he said. “The fact that she was a helicopter pilot was a plus because pilots are considered special: `She must be extra special to be a female pilot.’ They learned over time that she was very competent, smart, and bright.”

“Pros and Cons Either Way”

Living arrangements may not be the issue some think. “On Camp Arifjan females had their own tents or hardstand building once those were built, but on the camps in Iraq things were a bit more rustic,” says Captain Jennifer Mlocek, an Army transportation officer who spent 2004-05 in Iraq. “When the new leadership came in, we were told that females would not stay in the same tents as male soldiers; they would be in a female tent.”

Female Marines Take On Challenges in Afghanistan

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Men and women have assigned shower times in some remote outposts in Afghanistan.

She didn’t like that. “I told the battalion commander, `Sir, as a…leader who has been here for nine months, please hear me out. I’m safe in a tent with my male soldiers. I’m not necessarily safe seven tents over all alone,’” she told him. “Different things got batted around – like if there was going to be a female on a convoy there had to be at least two. `So you’re telling me as a company commander that I can’t go with a convoy unless I arrange to have another female join me?’” she asked. “Those things were very well-intentioned and there were usually pros and cons to either way of doing it.”

Mlocek found her wartime experience exhilarating. “That’s not to say I didn’t find things stressful. Apparently I was clenching my teeth so much in my sleep during the deployment that I cracked a couple of them,” she said. “It was a huge level of responsibility but I’m also very glad I did it. This is going to be one of those things that’s pretty hard to top. It was a remarkable experience that I shared with remarkable people.

“My husband says I’m a little bossier!”

“Tough as Nails”

Fact is, war can make men forget they’ve been serving alongside women. “We had like eight females in the whole squadron, and they weren’t considered females,” said Major Eric Puls, an aviation-maintenance officer in Iraq in 2003-04. “They were soldiers, they were one of us; they were galvanized men, so to say. They were tough as nails and some of them were drivers on some of our worst convoy missions. All they did was drive. They were females who were in the medical unit, or the service and support unit, and they were tough girls. If you were to put them in line with a bunch of soldiers with body armor on and all the dirt and dust, you couldn’t tell the difference. They were never thought of that way.”

Then he and several of his soldiers, including a woman, dined in a mess hall for the first time in six months. “We went into this mess hall and there was a very, very nice-looking woman there – and we were just in awe,” he recalled. “The funny part was that my warrant officers were dumbfounded and said, `Wow, a girl!’ They didn’t mean for it to sound the way it did, and, of course, the female soldier took it in stride, and we were all embarrassed that she had heard that. But that’s the level you get to.”


Major Gregory Trahan watched a female supply sergeant replace a trained infantryman after running through a gauntlet of seven mortar rounds that exploded one right after the other as the three-vehicle convoy he was commanding came under fire during his 2003-04 tour in and around Ramadi, Iraq. The gunner on the last vehicle was hit by shrapnel — had the wind knocked out of him — but was saved by his body armor.

My supply sergeant radioed back to me and said that the SAW [squad automatic weapon] gunner in her truck, who had been hit but who was not bleeding or anything, was nonetheless afraid to get back on the gun. I told her to get somebody back up there. So, this young female sergeant – probably 23 or 24 years old – put him in her seat and then she got up and began pulling security with the vehicle. I thought that was pretty awesome. By the way, she was a supply sergeant and the guy who had been pulling security on that truck was my armorer, who was an 11B from an infantry battalion. I thought that was ironic.

An 11B – “Eleven-Bravo,” in soldier-speak – is the job designation for an infantryman, the backbone of the Army and a slot women were barred from, until last week.

Silver Stardom

Just before noon on Mar. 20, 2005, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester’s Kentucky Army National Guard unit engaged in a 25-minute firefight with the enemy that earned her the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for battlefield valor. She was the first woman to be so recognized since World War II, and the first-ever cited for close-in combat. Her 10-member MP squad, including another woman, was aboard three vehicles providing protection for a convoy of 30 tractor trailers heading south through Hester’s sector on Route Detroit near Salman Pak.


Kentucky ANG

“While traveling on ASR [Alternate Supply Route] Detroit approximately 50 AIF [anti-Iraqi forces] ambushed the convoy with heavy AK47 fire, RPK heavy machine gun fire, and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) from the southwest side of the road at 1140 hours,” her Silver Star citation reads. “The AIF were utilizing irrigation ditches and an orchard for the well-planned complex attack.”

Gunfire from the nearby orchard ignited the convoy’s first trailer, forcing it to stop – and halting the rest of the convoy in the middle of the kill zone. “The next thing I remember was Sergeant Hester and I laying down fire against the insurgents running through that field, the ones who were left in the orchard,” Sergeant Dustin Morris said. “We may have been there 10 to 15 minutes.”

Staff Sergeant Timothy F. Nein, who also earned a Silver Star that day (later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross), paired with the 5-foot-4 Hester to kill the final four insurgents in an irrigation ditch alongside the road. “We need to charge these guys,” he recalled thinking. “I thought we were all going to die there.”

Hein continued:

So Sergeant Hester and I rolled into the canals and, just before we did, there was a guy who was up by the vehicles – and I believe she shot and killed him. We went to the canals and basically she was behind me the whole time. One of the things we always talked about was that if we had to go head-to-head with somebody, always try to keep our body armor square with the bad guy: that way we had the best ballistic protection from our vest. We stayed squared up.

The pair crept along a ditch, tossing grenades and firing their M-4 rifles at the enemy, who was firing back with AK-47s.

I stepped off to the left and she shot two 203s, but she couldn’t get them low enough because they were about 50 meters in front of us at that time. I told her we just had to keep on going and so we started throwing grenades and shooting our M-4s. She would shoot over my right shoulder while I prepared the grenade to throw it, or I would be shooting while she threw a grenade. I had three grenades when I left that morning. I’d already thrown one. I threw two more in the canal off my vest and she had two on her as well. I threw one of hers and she threw one of hers.
Basically five or 10 minutes into the canal system we’d killed the four guys.

In fact, the unit killed 27 insurgents, without losing a single soldier. Hester, 23 at the time, “engaged and eliminated 3 AIF with her M-4 rifle,” her Silver Star citation reads.

Those interviewed for this Army project generally did so while attending school at Fort Leavenworth. Few sergeants attend, and Hester was not interviewed. But she summed up her feelings about those who say women don’t belong in combat shortly after the Army awarded her the Silver Star. “It kind of makes me mad,” she told the Washington Post. “Women can basically do any job that men can.”

But some just need proof.

“She’s just…awesome!”

Army Major Christopher L’Heureux, for example, was a company commander in a Stryker brigade in Iraq in 2005-06 when he changed his mind on women in combat. His change of heart came on Oct. 11, 2006, when an explosively-formed penetrator – an especially-deadly kind of IED – blew up one of his Strykers in the Baghdad’s Rusafa neighborhood, just across the Tigris River from the U.S. Embassy:

The fuel cells are on the outside in the back and they catch on fire. There are four people in the back; Nick Sowinski who is sitting in the hull. Next to him is LT Bernard Gardner who is outside the back hatch. Those two are closest to the blast.
On the other side of the vehicle is a guy named SSG Beam out the other hatch as well as [Specialist] Van Wirt. The EFP rings Gardner’s bell and he doesn’t know which way is up; the compartment is full of smoke. The driver and gunner get out; they’re fine. Beam loses his leg below the knee, just above the ankle but his wits are completely about him. He is thinking completely crystal clear.
Gardner screams, “Get out of the hatch!” He’s kind of spastic and he’s bell is rung. Beam was the opposite and was like, “Sir, calm down. I can’t get out. We have to get the hatch open. The hydraulics are busted right now. The vehicle is on fire. We can’t get the damn door open.”
Sowinski is a six-foot-one guy and with all of his kit on he has to weigh 250 pounds.
Van Wirt is about a buck-20 maybe 100 pounds at five-foot-one or two; she’s pretty short.
Sowinski was non- responsive…
They also take small arms fire from a roof top about 100 meters away.
The vehicle behind them pulls up and start laying suppressive fire. They drop the ramp and come out. By this time the driver and gunner come out and try to get the damn door open and it’s on fire. The fuel cells are literally right there in the back of the Stryker anyway. The finally get the hatch down and the first few people — Beam and the lieutenant — are pulled out.
Van Wirt, all 100 pounds of her, pulls Nick Sowinski out of this burning vehicle with her weapon. Getting in and out of the vehicle with all of your kit on is difficult enough on its own, especially if you add smoke, fire, and the chaos of getting shot at and bullets pinging off the outside of the armor but she does it anyway.
She pulls him out of this burning vehicle!
She’s just f—ing awesome!
She pulls him out of this burning vehicle, which is amazing in itself. As she’s dragging him back she’s shooting one-handed with her M-16 towards the bad guys; completely phenomenal!
…Nobody knows he’s dead until I meet them at the CSH [combat support hospital]…
Van Wirt is basically unscratched…
It changed my opinion about where women ought to be in the fight…after this I just thought it didn’t really matter. When the chips are down, a good Soldier is a good Soldier and it doesn’t really matter.
She was just phenomenal…
She was a lab technician.

” You’ve just got to prove yourself.”

The final narrative involves an unnamed woman who, like the male compatriots who came before her, trained long and hard enough to be sure that when opportunity presented itself, she had done everything humanly possible to make herself lucky in battle.

Major Ann Dunscombe commanded a military police company in Afghanistan in 2005-06. Her command had ordered her to send one of her platoons to Jalalabad in the eastern part of the country to help the Marines there:

Which at this time was a very, very hot area; it’s where the SEALs were all killed, and so there was some bad stuff going on there. I had to send an MP platoon. Of course, now I’m not only representing the Military Police Corps, I’m representing the Army to a Marine unit. So I’m sending my best, which is a female; a very small, very, very pretty, very soft-talking female.

The new arrival called Dunscombe after a week in her new assignment. “Hey, they said I can’t be here because I’m a woman,” the female lieutenant told her boss. “They don’t want me. They say they want to see my commander immediately.”

So I said, “Alright, I’ll be out there as soon as I can.” I flew out a few days later, I landed, and I walked into the COC, as the Marines call it — the Command Operations Center or whatever they call it. We call it a Tactical Operations Center, they call it a COC; which is even funnier. So I walk in there, and they were like, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m the MP Commander,” and they were like, “Oh, God, it’s another woman.”

The Marines said they didn’t want her female lieutenant. “If you don’t want her, I’ll take her back, but you’re going to get my worst,” she told them.

So Marines agreed to take the female lieutenant on a two-week trial basis.

About a week later, I was in the brigade operations center and up on our screens where through a UAV [we can see], my platoon came into contact; a UAV is an unmanned aerial vehicle that can watch the battlefield. Through a UAV, it picked up my platoon all of a sudden, and there was a Marine platoon that was pinned down and was getting beat up pretty badly.
They were calling for assistance, and my MP platoon then came on the scene, you could see them all.
I was watching it all.
They could see the bad guys, they could see the enemy, they could see the Marine platoon pinned down, so my platoon leader called for fire for them.
So she puts in a call for fire in her very small, soft-spoken voice.
When you call for fire, generally you send a round, and once it impacts, you then determine whether or not you need to adjust that round. And it usually takes quite a few shots.
So she calls for fire and it hits. She observes it hitting, and then she calls in and says “fire for effect,” which means she hit the target.
And they call back and said, “Don’t you need to adjust?” And she said, “No, fire for effect.”
And she ended up destroying the enemy with one shot and saved that Marine platoon.

“She did a great job, and her platoon did a great job. I flew out there a week later and said, `I’m here to pick up my platoon leader, I’ve got my new one for you,’” Dunscombe told the Marines. “And they said, `No, no, we’ll keep her.’

“From that point forward, they thought she was the greatest thing on Earth. She could do no wrong, her platoon could do no wrong.

“That’s what it took for them. Which is kind of ridiculous, but I kind of see their point.

“And I asked her, `How did you do it?’ and she said, `I guessed! Like everybody else does it, I took a swag [scientific wild-ass guess], said I think they’re there, and when it hit, I said, “Oh my God, I got them!”’

“And that’s the typical thing you deal with. You’ve just got to prove yourself.”

PHOTOS: Been There, Done That: Pentagon Formally Opens Combat to Women