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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The previous night, for example, women stopped at the checkpoint were found to have hidden AK-47s under their ankle-length robes. Indeed, US intelligence reports indicate that scores of female suicide bombers ready to attack US military targets are among the forces loyal to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.Skip to next paragraph
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"In this culture, men cannot touch or search, or even look at, women," says Spc. Ashley Beaty of the 422 Civil Affairs Battalion. She recently visited an Iraqi farmhouse and was welcomed into the women's hut to drink tiny glasses filled half with sugar, half with tea. A female Army doctor examined women and children.
Valenzuela enjoys working as a linguist, a job she began only days ago when her translating talents came to light. Still, as the daughter of a Moroccan diplomat, she finds many aspects of life as an Army sergeant hard and degrading, especially in Iraq. And she misses her 2-year-old son.
Raised in Europe and the Middle East, Valenzuela immigrated to the US from Morocco in 1995 after getting a job working at the Moroccan Pavilion at Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla. She recalled being impressed when a male coworker from Morocco joined the Marines. "He used to come to the Pavilion to flaunt his Class A uniform, and we all said, 'Wow!'"
She visited an Army recruiter, but was so upset by the basic-training video he showed her that she left in tears. "All the yelling, I wasn't used to that. I was taught Oxford English, very proper, so I didn't understand the slang. I felt like a retard."
Determined to enlist anyway, she went to boot camp, where her poise paid off. Out of her entire company, she was chosen "Soldier of the Cycle" for her confidence, knowledge, and military bearing. "I got to stand at a special place near the reviewing stand at graduation," she says, smiling.
Yet aspects of Army life grate on Valenzuela, who notes that in the Moroccan military, women serve only as officers. "In America, everyone is equal, but this is a little too equal for my tastes," she says.
"Some things we do are very degrading to women, like cleaning the [excrement] and digging foxholes. Sometimes women do the hard work and men sit around flossing because they have rank on us. I don't like disrespect, like the way males talk to you when they outrank you. That ticks me off," she says.
The constant battle with dust and dirt here is also harder on women, Valenzuela says. "We're not like guys. We have to be clean," she says. "We need soap and water. You can't live off baby wipes."
Like many mothers here, Valenzuela is heartbroken about being away from her son, her only child. "I always lived in fear that I would leave my son," she says, sitting on her cot and pulling out a snapshot. "I have to have my baby with me. We never even bought a crib because he slept in our bed." Valenzuela's husband is also deployed with the Army, and their son is with her mother in Morocco.
Long separations from children are a major reason why many Army women decide to leave the military. That, combined with perceived obstacles, concerns about harassment, limited occupational roles, and the challenges of dual-military-career families, help account for Army attrition rates being far higher for women.
Though white female officers are promoted in only slightly lower proportions than are white males, they're more likely to leave. Before their first three years are up, nearly 47 percent of enlisted women have left - by choice or by order - compared with about 28 percent of their male comrades. And across all armed services, about 38 percent of women - and one third of men - leave in their first three years.