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One day daughters, today our soldiers

The parents of Kyana Stewart, 19, and Mary Bartlett, 20, are trying to be brave for their girls as they go off to war.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003

Kevin Stewart of Spring Hill has always believed that it was his duty to protect his daughter, Kyana, from anything or anyone who might try to harm her. But Stewart knows that Kyana, a 19-year-old Army private about to join America's fighting force in Iraq, soon will enter a place far beyond his reach of protection.

"I've spent my life doing that," he said. "This is not in my plan."

Diana Bartlett, who lives on Eskimo Curlew Road, a few miles north of Spring Hill, knows the feeling.

Her daughter, Mary, a 20-year-old Marine private, is already in the middle of the action. Any illusions she had that her daughter, a cook in a support unit, might not be in that much danger evaporated last week when Iraqi forces released video footage of their first American prisoners of war.

"The first one I saw was a cook," Mrs. Bartlett said. "She was in the Army. But that hits home. It bothers me."

Long accustomed to sending its sons off to war, America is sending more daughters into action than ever before. It is a reality made possible after the last Gulf War, when Congress repealed laws that kept women away from the battlefield. It is not clear exactly how many American women are part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But worldwide, about 15 percent of American military personnel are women.

While women are still not allowed to serve in infantry units and other forces that directly engage the enemy, they are serving in combat helicopters and on ships, coordinating artillery fire and, like Kyana Stewart, trucking supplies and equipment to the front lines.

"She's a soldier, man," Mr. Stewart said of his daughter. "She's a soldier."

Stewart and Bartlett, who both graduated from Central High School and its Naval Junior ROTC program, made the decision to enter the military with their eyes wide open, their parents say.

Bartlett set her sights on joining the Marines when she was in middle school. She got the idea from watching her older sister, Bobbie Jo Bryant, who is also a Marine.

"Mary always wanted to be a Marine," said retired Lt. Col. Michael Ralph, an instructor in the naval science program at Central. "She was geared up for that. She worked hard."

Bartlett took classes in the martial art tae kwon do for four years, her mother said. And she wasn't afraid to take on boys in competitions. Still, as a Marine, Bartlett weighs only 130 pounds. With her gear -- including a full pack and an M-16 with 30 rounds of ammunition -- she weighs 190 pounds.

It was not Bartlett's intention to become a cook in the Marines. But that is where she was slotted.

"She is one tough girl. But she is probably scared, too," Mrs. Bartlett said. "I think they all are."

Bartlett recently sent home a postcard with camels on it. She had bought it in Kuwait City, near where she was based in the days leading up to the war. According to her mother, the postcard said: "I got to see these camels crossing the desert with their babies."

Stewart, in her father's words, has always been "special."

When she was 11, her father was ill. She and her brother, Kevin, stayed with their grandparents. One night, as everyone slept, a space heater in the home shorted out, and the house caught fire. Kyana could not wake her brother, who was 7. So she picked him up and carried him out, remembering to stay low, as they had practiced during family fire drills.

"She's always been special," her father said. "She's always wanted to be Numero Uno."

In high school, Stewart played golf, softball and was a member of the wrestling team. She got a job at a youth summer program at age 14 and took part in the youth anti-smoking group, Students Working Against Tobacco. She gave up the band so she could join the Navy ROTC program.

Central High counselor Joan Emerson said Kyana got off to a slow start in high school as far as academics go. But she made a conscious decision to retake classes and to raise her grade-point average. Emerson thinks so highly of her that she has a picture of Kyana on her bulletin board a year after she graduated.

Just the other day, a student told Emerson that Kyana was about to be deployed for the war.

"I'm sad. It worries me," she said. "I don't want anything to happen to her."

That same thought frequently occurs to Kevin Stewart, who still thinks of Kyana as his "baby," who could be both "proper and prissy and rough and tumble."

As for Diana Bartlett, a cafeteria worker who cooks for students at Parrott Middle School while her daughter cooks for soldiers, the memories remain of the little girl who played with Barbies and played dress-up not too long ago. Along with Mary's father, Charles, and her brother, Travis, a student at Central, they wait anxiously for Mary's return.

"We're holding up. We're keeping the faith," Mrs. Bartlett said. "I wish it would be over sooner rather than later, but I don't think that's going to happen."

Ralph, the naval science instructor at Central who was a Marine for 22 years, said America does not expect females to be in positions where they might face hand-to-hand combat. But he says there will be times when women are in dangerous situations. He said Bartlett and Stewart are well trained.

"Both of them are good, stellar young women," Ralph said. "I think they they'll do us all proud over there representing our country."

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