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The new veterans among us: women

Women comprise a small but steadily growing number of Americans serving their country in the military.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 2006


When Maj. Margaret Oglesby went to Washington in 2004 for a celebration of black women veterans who had served in combat, she was stunned to feel, for once, not alone.

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Throughout her nearly nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, she was accustomed to being in her own category: a woman, an African-American, an officer, a National Guard member.

"When I saw all the other women who had gone through what I'd gone through, it was amazing," Major Oglesby remembers. "There was just unconditional love in that room."

As America recognizes its veterans Saturday, a small but steadily growing number are women – some 28,000 of the 274,000 service members currently deployed. While still officially relegated to support positions and barred from infantry or armored divisions, such distinctions mean little when even the enemy isn't clear and any position can be a target.

"My guess is that one of the results of this conflict is that there will be a redefinition of women's roles," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. At checkpoints where Iraqi women must be searched, Professor Segal notes, women "have to be there."

Women's integration to default combat has occurred as a result of practice, rather than policy, Segal says, noting that racial integration happened in much the same way during the Korean War. The shift may help Americans' ideas about who military members are, though it's still shocking to some to see women come back from Iraq or Afghanistan in body bags or with amputations and other traumatic wounds. Fifty-eight women have been killed in Iraq since 2003, and 428 have been wounded.

For many Americans, the image of a veteran is still firmly masculine.

"People tell me, 'You're not a veteran. You're young, you're a girl," laughs Specialist Jennet Posey, who served in Iraq as a mechanic for nine months before coming home and eventually moving to the inactive ready reserves while studying journalism in Chicago. "We're out there too, and we're risking our lives, but people don't see it. Women veterans do not get the recognition they deserve."

Specialist Posey has joined a group called National Women Veterans United, in which she's working to get the message out that women are serving and often have specific needs that she thinks could be better met.

She remembers being stationed in Kuwait before the Iraq war started, for instance, and only having one shower trailer for women, compared with several thousand for men. In convoys, going to the bathroom meant risking either privacy or safety, since straying away from the trucks was dangerous. And it was hard to find basic hair products or decent sanitary napkins in the Army store.

"I would just dream about being clean," she says. "We're not saying cater to us, but there are certain things you need."

These days Posey, a quiet young woman who displays her Army certificates with pride in her small South Shore Chicago apartment, finds comfort in the bonds she forms with other women veterans.

"When I come across a female veteran, it's like a sisterhood," she says. "Especially if you were in Iraq, you know how I feel."