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Women Marines in Iraq
Sara Sheldon

For the first five decades of my life, I had little interest in and no understanding of the military. Then my son joined the Corps and it changed my life as well as his. I took a break from research on a book on art and politics in modern to write adventure fiction about the Marines titled Operation Restore America, published in 1998.

In the ensuing war against terrorism (Operation Iraqi Freedom), I began to see the increased importance of the role of women Marines, and in February of 2005, at the age of 70, I went to Iraq to embed with the 1st MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) to personally interview women Marine officers and enlisted personnel for a non-fiction book. I wrote about the women I encountered in The Few. The Proud. Women Marines in Harm’s Way. (Praeger Security International, 2007)

What’s it like to be a woman in the United States Marine Corps—one of the most notorious guy’s gun clubs? Why would a woman want to be a part of that macho band of warriors? The business of Marines is war. Isn’t it counterintuitive for American women to be associated with fighting wars? After my son joined the Marines 15 years ago and I became intrigued with that exclusive branch of our military, these were the questions that I wanted answers to.

Is it dangerous for the women Marines serving in Iraq? Yes. There are no front lines in the war—the entire country is a war zone. There is not one place in all of Bagdad, including the highly fortified Green Zone, that is safe from rockets, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or suicide bombers. Marines live on bases frequently shelled by insurgents. Travel between bases, to and from and BIAP (Bagdad International Airport) is over roads that witness IED explosions 3 to 5 times a week. The airspace is equally as dangerous. In a country about the size of California, there are as many as 1,500 civilian and military ( U.S. and Iraqi) casualties a month.

U.S. Government policy forbids women to participate in combat, and thus they are barred from the combat units such as infantry, artillery, or Special Forces. But there are over 900 Military Occupational Specialties (jobs—called MOS) open to Marines, in general areas including administration, human resources, health care, transportation and material handling, electronics, construction, public affairs, maintenance, and hundreds more.

In Iraq I interviewed women who had been in combat, intentionally or not. To them, it’s part of being a Marine—doing the job, achieving the goals of the mission. A 2nd lieutenant, who was commissioned as a Marine officer at twenty-one after receiving a degree in business, led a unit of Marine combat engineers in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. Her job was to build strong points—vehicle control points, bridges, housing and latrines for the Marines while they were working at the edge of the battle. It also entailed demolition—blowing up weapons caches, and unsafe houses. She told me, “We were constantly in danger, because we were visible. Our work was out in the open. We got drawn into fire fights pretty often.apostrophe This required her to return fire with her M16 rifle and the 9mm pistol each officer carries.

A lieutenant colonel, a graduate of a small Southern Baptist all-girls school, led a Marine Corps unit of Military Police escorting the supply trucks going north to in the invasion of 2003. For 30 days, because the issue of weapons of mass destruction hadn’t been resolved, she and her men wore full MOPP gear—thick, chemical-biological protective full-body suits, boots, gloves, and oxygen masks. They drove, walked, ate, and slept in the gear. No part of their body was exposed. They went without hot food, showers and a change of clothes the entire time, sleeping in the open. They carried with them all their own ammunition, food and water.