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War Stories From Women

First Lt. Kerry O’Connor, USMC, was out running with four other officers, all of them men, after a particularly tense day of war in the Persian Gulf. O’Connor’s in intelligence. Her assessments can make the difference between who lives or dies: them or us.

“We were having a helicopter assault with a lot of enemy,” she says. “I didn’t think it should go. When we were out running, my XO (executive officer) said, ‘Well, I think your response was emotionally based.’ And I thought, ‘ Wait a minute.’

“So I said, ‘That’s my job . There were enemy everywhere.’ So he waited a few seconds, then he said, ‘Nahhh, it’s PMS.’ ”

And that gave everybody a good laugh. O’Connor too. The boss had seen her point.

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Women in the military, doing a man’s job, just one of the guys. Great on paper, better for P.R., but how far should it go? Many in Congress say all the way, in combat, in the cockpit and steering a ship.

Most of the top military brass, however, say that women soldiers have gone quite far enough.

The reasoning has been around for a while. Women pioneers--pick any field you like--are experiencing deja vu. It goes something like this. (Please use your deepest voice, for effect).

Women soldiers can’t handle combat (they don’t have the strength and plus, what happens around that time of the month!). It would be bad for morale (would you want to share a foxhole with a girl? ) And the American public isn’t ready to see their wives, mothers and daughters become casualties of war (the loss of a male life is apparently easier to take).

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Except reality has long since intervened.

Women, too, can have the right stuff. They’ve come home from war with stories that could put hair on even their pretty little chests. The World War II concept of a danger zone up front and support in the rear is obsolete. Even a Scud knows that.

“He or she who is best qualified should be allowed to do whatever job there is,” says Capt. Cindy Gats, who like O’Connor was deployed in Operation Desert Storm. “And that includes the military too.”

Makes sense to me, but then again, I’ve never been through boot camp, nor do I wish that I’d given it a try. I’m just not the military type; my thrills are much more tame.

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So I went over to the Marine base at El Toro the other day to talk to some women soldiers about the possibility of opening doors that have traditionally been shut to the so-called weaker sex.

To a woman, these soldiers were for it. Every man and woman should have a fighting chance to prove that they can make the cut. If they can’t, then they’re out. It’s as simple as that. The question of gender, regardless of the job, need not come up.

“The truth is I had trouble when it would rain at TBS (The Basic School),” O’Connor says. “You’d be humping one of the heavy weapons up a hill. In the rain, with your gear all wet, that’s 110 pounds. But my roommate at TBS, I’ve never met a stronger woman. She could beat so many of the men hands down.”

Gats adds this: “I would prefer to be in a foxhole with some woman with some heart than with some 120-pound man worried about whether his girlfriend is being faithful to him back home.”

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The rest of the battle is just getting along. There will always be skirmishes along the way to victory here. Ask any woman cop, or a steelworker, or CEO. Boys will be boys; this is no secret to girls.

But most boys eventually grow up.

“People say that the public just isn’t ready for women to be fully integrated into the armed forces,” O’Connor says. “That may be true. But the American people could have said forever that they weren’t ready for blacks to be integrated either.”

Women soldiers--the smart ones, at least--don’t make their sex a big deal.

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“You don’t become asexual at work; that’s dangerous,” O’Connor says. “But you develop a persona that’s able to mask parts of you that would make you stand out. . . . It’s something that’s real difficult to verbalize. You just do it. And you wear little or no makeup.”

“It’s a real moral dilemma that I have nail polish on right now,” says Capt. Betsy Sweatt, spokeswoman for the El Toro base during the war.

Gats recalls that while deployed in Saudi Arabia, the male soldiers would walk to the showers wrapped only in a towel, with flip-flops on their feet. She’d be in uniform or else in sweats. No sense in setting off any alarms.

So other than the obvious, these soldiers just sounded like the guys.

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Gats says that when she hears people gasp about women dying in war, she tells them this: “Hey, body parts don’t look good. But an arm’s an arm. Mine’s just smaller.” This woman just flat out loves the thrill of being a Marine.

“There is something inside me that says, ‘Yeah, I want to do something exciting,’ ” she says, then she goes on to rhapsodize about jumping out of planes.

She uses a metaphor to that I promised I wouldn’t print.

O’Connor says the war changed something inside her.

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“I think I’ve grown a lot,” she says. “I’ve become much more decisive. I’m a little bit tougher on my Marines.”

And Sweatt, like her male colleagues, can get bent out of shape when enlisted soldiers get pregnant, which is a ticket home.

“It’s the only self-inflicted wound that can get you out of the Marines,” she says.

Everybody gets a good hoot over that.

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But not to worry; it’s fine. There aren’t any boys around just now.

‘Cause you know how they can get.


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