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.
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."
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.
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."