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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.

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But some women also worry about declaring too many differences between them and their male counterparts – and they're most proud of the ways in which they've shown themselves to be equal.

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Staff Sgt. Tracy Lisenby, a young former cheerleader who works as a recruiter for the Wisconsin National Guard and spent 16 months deployed in Iraq, says she occasionally did "girl things" with other women on her days off – wearing makeup, dying each other's hair, watching "Sex and the City" episodes – but she also took immense pride in how well she did in physical tests. "I smoke 'em in push ups," she says with a laugh.

Staff Sergeant Lisenby, like Oglesby, was in a military police unit where it was critical to have women available to conduct searches of Iraqi women at checkpoints. Unusually, about 40 percent of her company was female, and she says many of the Iraqi police were initially surprised to see women in uniform.

"I wish women could be in the special forces or the Ranger stuff," she says. "But our society's not there yet."

Even as women are proving their mettle in combat situations, they often, like men, face adjustments when they return to the US or to civilian life. VA hospitals have worked hard to better meet the needs of female veterans, who can suffer sexual trauma or abuse, gynecological problems, mental trauma, difficulties coming back to a caretaker role in their families, or guilt over leaving their children.

"We're working very hard at getting across the idea to women that we can provide them with an environment that's safe and sensitive to their needs," says Katherine Dong, Women Veterans Program manager at the North Chicago VA hospital. About 10 percent of her hospital's patients are women.

She says mothers often expect, even after being away for a year, that they will come home and pick up where they left off. "Especially for women, it's a conflict because you are happy your family has managed without you, but at the same time, when you come back it almost feels like you haven't been missed," Ms. Dong says.

Oglesby's youngest son was 2 when she left for Afghanistan. He was having difficulty talking when she returned, and she immediately felt guilty, even though he's fine now. Her daughter, now 11, had the hardest time with her mother gone, but Oglesby kept in vigilant touch with her teacher by e-mail.

Still, Oglesby says returning home took some adjustments. She makes sure her three children know where she'll be at all times. On a recent trip to a Six Flags theme park, she was walking behind her husband and children, and her oldest son spun around to spot her. "He said, 'I just want to make sure no one took you.' "

When she gives a women's Veterans Day tribute at the Massachusetts Statehouse Saturday, Oglesby is torn about whether to spend more time talking about her own experiences and how far women have come in the military, or paying tribute to the women who paved the way for her to be there.

"I met a woman who served in the Marines in 1940," she says. "I'm in awe. I have so many opportunities that they did not have, and I want to thank them for kicking down the door that I'm able to walk through, and building the foundation that I'm able to stand on."