Trust us to decide our role in the Army, female servicemembers in Iraq say

By Sandra Jontz and Kevin Dougherty, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Wednesday, May 25, 2005

FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — If Pvt. Roxana Figueroa had her way, the Army would open up all jobs — from infantry on up — to women, and leave it up to women to decide where they want to serve.

“If women want to, and can make it, I think they should be able to serve in combat,” said the 20-year-old, deployed to Iraq with the 94th Engineer Battalion based in Vilseck, Germany.

At a minimum, women should be able to serve in combat support units, and she opposes a congressional proposal that would ban women from such roles.

“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “It’s taken us a long time to come this far, to even have engineering jobs in the Army, and now they might take that away from us.”

There’s also no doubt that women serving alongside men in a combat zone presents its fair share of challenges, said Spc. Leticia Montez, 21, an administration and mail clerk with 113th Engineer Battalion.

“They are right when they say we need to have certain things that men can get by without,” Montez said, citing hygiene products as an example. But if supply clerks can’t stock the shelves with such items, she said, family and friends back home can be counted on to send products in care packages.

The issue is controversial for men and women serving in Iraq, and several soldiers at FOB Marez declined to venture a point of view for fear of reprisal and backlash.

Under current policy, set in 1994, women are banned from joining units below brigade level whose primary missions are to engage in direct ground combat. Iraq is testing that policy.

Maj. Henrik Fast, executive officer of the 145th Support Battalion in Kirkuk, said female soldiers are an “integral part of our operations.”

“The impact of eliminating females from combat service support units would be devastating to us,” he said, noting 20 percent of the battalion is female. “Such a proposal would kill us.”

Women serving in Iraq, even in the support roles, are already in the line of fire.

They are medics, mechanics, supply specialists, truck drivers, cooks and communications specialists. Some of those jobs require them to leave the relative safety of bases.

“Women in my unit are performing admirably and are keeping pace with male counterparts doing the same thing. Out in combat situations, they’ve performed amazingly,” said Lt. Col. Cheri Provancha, 25th Brigade Support Battalion commander, citing the efforts of Spc. Shavodsha Hodges, whose supply convoy was hit with a roadside bomb in October and then came under small-arms fire.

Hodges is credited with yanking a gunner from his turret and treating his wounds after a Humvee rolled over.

Capt. Elijah Preston, a signal officer for the 3rd Battalion, 116th Armor Cavalry Regiment of the Oregon National Guard, said female soldiers he has worked with are more than capable of performing their duties, even in combat situations.

But, Preston said, losing a female soldier is harder on him than losing men.

“I think a lot of people would disagree with me, but that’s how I see it. Seeing our mothers and daughters die, I think, is harder that seeing our fathers and sons [die].”

Spc. Corinne Newman, 27, of Nampa, Idaho, is a combat medic.

“It’s disappointing. For one, they train you just like the rest of them. If they train you equally you should be able to be out there and support them,” she said. “We’re all soldiers as far as I’m concerned.”

Spc. Jarell James, also with 94th Engineer Battalion, had no trouble voicing his opinion on the debates taking place in Washington.

“I think it’s stupid,” the 22- year-old said. “Females fight for all of this, all their rights, and now they want to take them away. They’re working backward, not forward.”