Dispatch from the 101st
A rocky road is leading to greater acceptance for and larger numbers of women in the military.
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait -- The last time U.S. forces massed against Iraq, Maj. Shari Corbett was a young lieutenant stationed in the desert of Saudi Arabia.
It was Christmas 1990, a month before the air war would start, when the commanding officer of Corbett's maintenance company tried to steal a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe.
She reported it to the battalion commander. But soon afterward, her commanding officer gave her an unfavorable evaluation. He was never reprimanded, and she volunteered for a front-line mission and left the company.
Now Corbett is one of the highest-ranking women in the 101st Airborne Division, a quick-strike force encamped in the deserts of northern Kuwait, several miles from the Iraqi border.
She says the Army has evolved into a fairer institution, where female soldiers have gained stature since they were first given combat roles 12 years ago.
"When I talk to the lieutenants now, or captains, most of them have never experienced an incident of sexual harassment," Corbett said recently. "It happens, but hopefully it's happening to a lesser extent."
If the United States attacks Iraq, women will be more deeply involved in more levels of action than ever before, officers say, although the Pentagon won't say how many are here. If U.S. forces take heavy casualties, women will likely die in record numbers, too.
They will fly attack and scout helicopters, truck ammunition to the front lines and staff the 101st Airborne's front-line refueling depots for attack helicopters, a high speed, dangerous job conducted deep behind enemy lines. They will coordinate artillery fire and fix Humvees.
At the desert camps where the troops are based, women sleep alongside men in open canvas tents and take their turns hauling trash and gear and wait to use the smelly latrines.
"When I first came in the Army, I had a platoon sergeant who came out and said he didn't believe women belonged in the Army. And then I never saw him again," said Master Sgt. Vickie Biggs-Pewitte, 43, a 20-year veteran from Beckley, W.Va., who works in communications for the 101st Airborne.
"Back then, a lot of people felt that way. But that changed as (men) began working with them."
At the same time, it remains a man's Army. Just 15 percent of America's 1.4-million active duty personnel are women, up from 11 percent during the Persian Gulf War. Female officers say they have to work harder and talk louder to be heard, and must live with a double-standard:
A hard-driving man is tough.
A hard-driving woman is a shrew.
When Corbett, the daughter of an Air Force officer from Jacksonville, Ark., entered the Army as a young lieutenant, she was accustomed to asking, not ordering. It did not get her far. One day a colleague pulled her aside and offered some advice that has served her career well, Corbett said.
"He said, 'You can be known as a floozy, or you can be a b----. So figure out how you want your name on the bathroom wall.' "
She did not pick floozy.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Andrea Carlesi was teaching high school in Pennsylvania when she decided she wanted to be part of something bigger. Seven years later, she is flying Kiowa scout helicopters for the 101st Airborne.
After the Gulf War, Congress repealed the law banning women from flying combat aircraft and serving on combat ships. They are still forbidden to serve in ground combat units that may directly engage the enemy, including infantry, field artillery, armor and Special Forces.
As one of four female pilots in the 2-17 Cavalry, Carlesi will roam deep into enemy territory to reconnaissance enemy positions, check routes for the infantry and target artillery fire.
If the fight continues into Baghdad, the small Kiowa has the maneuverability to support troops in urban combat.
Carlesi wears a beige flight suit and a 9mm pistol in a black shoulder holster. If war breaks out, she will be about as close to combat as a woman can get, in a unit whose members wear Stetson hats at formal ceremonies and fancy themselves cowboys.
Membership in this fraternity did not come easily, Carlesi said. In flight school, several Rangers hassled her daily, constantly questioning her motives for wanting to fly. Members of her squadron did the same when she arrived. Now they are like her brothers.
"They did their best to toughen me up by giving me hell every single day in flight school," she said. "I thank them for it now."
Many men here say women have brought new skills to the Army.
Maj. Dave Plunkett, 48, a chaplain with the 501st Signal Brigade of the 101st Airborne, found a much different Army than the one he served during the Gulf War. After 10 years on active duty and the last seven in the reserves, he was surprised to find himself in a tent full of women when he was deployed to Kuwait.
"I don't see any case where a woman is using her femininity to get out of anything," Plunkett said. "They're humping the backpack and getting it done, and I'm very impressed with that."
Lt. Johnny Dooley, 34, of Clarksville, Tenn., comptroller of the Airborne's Division Support Command, or DISCOM, said his experience with female soldiers has been excellent, and he's glad they're here. "They've got a different way of looking at things than all that hoo-ah, hoo-ah, run up the hill c---," he said.
"You do have some women in the Army who give females a bad name because they whine or complain, and that right there is probably what causes some to feel like they've got to work extra hard to get accepted."
But many male soldiers won't complain publicly about women. Some say the rise of women has softened the Army, because women don't have to meet the same physical standards as the men.
Others, particularly privates and specialists, the lowest-ranking soldiers, say their female peers complain too much and dodge duty or gain special treatment from male sergeants.
When it became clear last fall that the 101st Airborne would be sent to the Middle East, dozens of women soon became pregnant, men and women said. Pregnant women cannot deploy.
"It was, like, in the water," Carlesi said. "People were getting pregnant left and right."
Several women said they know too well that men hold the shortcomings of some against them all, and they try to guard against that.
Last week, Carlesi was visiting friends at another tent when a support pole began falling. The men in the tent jumped up to grab it, while the women just sat there. Carlesi joined the men.
"Don't give the guys any ammunition." Carlesi said. "We're a sisterhood."
Camp Udairi is a dusty enclave of canvas tents anchored to the desert floor against the wind. It is helicopters and 5,000-gallon tankers and infantry in camouflage charging about with rifles. It is a noisy industrial site where soldiers dress alike, talk alike, eat the same chow and cough up the same sand. And it's about to get hot.
The women here suffer no less than the men. In many coed units of the 101st Airborne, men and women bunk together in one-room tents, their cots just 2 feet apart.
Privacy is as rare as rain, and living here requires soldiers to take a vacation from modesty. Pastel cotton panties hang to dry on parachute cord slung inside. Soldiers change in their sleeping bags, or on the edge of their cots.
Men and women wear the same shapeless uniforms, but some women try to distinguish themselves in small ways. They can't paint their fingernails, but some paint their toenails red. Others say they color-coordinate their underwear.
Hair must be kept neat and above the collar, and mustn't interfere with headgear. But it can be braided or kept in a bun, then let down off duty.
"You have to have these small victories," Carlesi said.
In the headquarters company of DISCOM, more than one-quarter of the 200 soldiers are women. Of the 60 noncommissioned officers and soldiers in one DISCOM tent, almost half are women.
In this 100- by 30-foot tent, the women are as brash as any man, and some give far more guff than they take.
"You'd better move or get out of the way," Spec. Latrica Nixon, 23, warned Pvt. Garland Anderson, 22, as she tried to scoot by him on her way out of the tent recently.
He snorted and kept loafing.
"We can take it outside," she said.
"You'd better be sure you get your (battle) gear on first."
"I don't need it," Nixon retorted. "Don't need it. You big dummy."
"I think a soft-spoken female wouldn't get along too well in the military," said Sgt. Maile Jenkins, 31, a mechanic from Honolulu.
Corbett and others said women are most vulnerable when they first join the Army or move to a new unit, before they've had time to prove themselves or to show potential suitors they don't appreciate their entreaties.
The Army now requires any harassment claims to be filed within 30 days of the incident, which men and women say is more fair than an open-ended policy. It also provides a mechanism for filing an informal complaint, making it possible to report harassment without fear of ruining a soldier's career.
That, among other measures, has made it easier to come forward, women said.
"Even the lowest female private in the Army realizes that she doesn't have to put up with being harassed," said Sgt. 1st Class Lorraine Harris, the personnel sergeant for DISCOM who enlisted more than 18 years ago.
Many gave the institution high marks for equal treatment. Everyone who does the same job earns the same pay -- which often isn't true in the private sector -- and women said they believe they have the same opportunities for advancement and training.
And while there may be vulgar language, dirty jokes and chauvinism, the oversensitive will spend their careers being offended rather than getting ahead, they said.
"You can't change whether people talk about you, because they're going to talk about you," Carlesi said, "and you can't change how people think. All you can do is plug away and hope they are bright enough to pick up on the fact that you're not extra baggage."