The expanding role of GI Jane
Women now make up about 15 percent of the US armed forces, and the many mothers here mourn missed birthdays and bedtime stories.
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"Everyone was like, 'Yeah, get them'' and I was having trouble with that really aggressive attitude," she recalls. "People were saying, 'Yeah, let's go level that whole area.' And I was saying, 'There's no reason to go level 50 homes' - it just wasn't necessary."Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, in a break between missions on the route to Baghdad, Fritts said that while she's proud to be one of only two women pilots with the 3-7th Cavalry, her life on the front lines has been distinctly different from that of the men around her.
"There are some things that set me apart," says the West Point graduate from Portland, Ore.
The granddaughter of a World War II B-17 pilot, Fritts has wanted to fly helicopters since she was a freshman in high school. After West Point, she attended flight school, where less than 10 percent of her classmates were women. Now, she proudly wears the Cavalry's signature black Stetson with gold tassels that she keeps behind the seat of her Kiowa, nicknamed "Drunken Monkey."
Male colleagues treat her with respect, she says, even though she knows some of them disagree with policies allowing women to serve in military jobs traditionally reserved for men. "The guys are very professional, so they put aside their personal feelings," she says.
But Fritts has realized that as the lone woman, she will not enjoy the kind of lifelong bonds forged in combat by the men in her platoon. "A lot of the guys get their best buddies from within the troop, so they can really let go and be themselves. But my best friends are women, and they aren't here, so the guys won't really know me the same way," she says.
Practical problems in western Iraq's flat terrain, such as finding a spot to change clothes or go to the bathroom, also separate Fritts from the men. So does a disinclination to join in with the men's lewd banter and crude jokes.
As an officer, Fritts has had to make a conscious effort to change the language she uses with her male subordinates - eliminating niceties. "Guys are more direct. Instead of asking them to do things, I have to tell them, without saying 'Please' or 'Thanks.' That's what they expect."
Fritts sees herself as a trailblazer, and as she witnesses firsthand the strict segregation of women in Iraq, she feels particularly gratified that American women can serve in combat. Still, she believes that combat fields, such as armor and artillery, should be opened up to women who have the physical strength to do those jobs.
Fritts doesn't relish the danger of her work. "Every time I go up, I expect to get shot at," she says, admitting that only her training allows her to overcome the fear and confusion of combat.
But she rejects, on principle, the idea that a public aversion to placing women in harm's way should bar her from the front lines. "Why should I not be allowed to do something I want to do because some guy lying on a couch watching TV feels uncomfortable seeing me dragged through the street?" she says. "I don't see why a woman's life is so much more important than a man's life," she says. "For a woman to gain full citizenship, she should be able to die for her country."
Sgt. Raja Valenzuela speaks softly in Arabic to two women in black robes, cradling their children on the side of an Iraqi road.
"Where did you come from?" she asks.
"From An Najaf," say the women, pointing to the city's gold, onion-domed mosque in the distance. Along with a truckload of men, they are refugees from days of guerrilla warfare in and around the city which is under siege from US forces.
Just then, a mortar round explodes several hundred yards away, and the women jump and cover their heads. Several other blasts follow, sending up white clouds in the wheat fields below the city.
Sergeant Valenzuela, a native of Morocco, is performing a crucial job as an Arabic linguist for the Army in Iraq, where in many localities, it is culturally unacceptable for male US soldiers to search, or even question, women. Military police and civil affairs units rely on women such as Valenzuela for this work.