NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As the presidential candidates debate who’s most fit to handle a national emergency and as the Iraq war ends its fifth year, a small group of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recently offered their view on the qualifications for being commander in chief.
"That is going to be our boss," said Staff Sgt. Luz Gonzalez, an ammunition specialist who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Which one do we believe in more? Which person is best fit for the job? If she is better then she should be president and her being female should not matter."
Unwilling to endorse any one candidate, the five women underscored the importance of picking a well-qualified, experienced commander in chief. Their checklist: vision, experience and patriotism.
Gender, they said, would not influence their vote.
Women have asserted their fitness to serve in military roles since World War II, and despite an official prohibition against serving in combat, the Iraq and Afghan conflicts have put them on the front lines, if not officially as members of the infantry. Currently 198,000 women are on active duty, according to September 2007 statistics from the Department of Defense.
Sen. Hillary Clinton has asserted that she can best handle the red, ringing telephone in the dead of night.
Sen. Barack Obama has rebutted that he has demonstrated the best judgment by opposing the war before it started five years ago.
Sen. John McCain, who served in Vietnam, said he would steady the war’s course during a congressional visit to Baghdad this week. A March 15 Zogby poll showed that he had the highest approval rating as military commander. When matched against Clinton, he was favored by 55 percent; against Obama, 56 percent.
In a face-off on the question the Democrats were almost tied, with 37 percent saying they would trust Clinton the most to handle a crisis call, 36 percent choosing Obama.
Checking the Historical Record
Sgt. Carolyn Schapper, from the Virginia Army National Guard, asks herself whether a woman can be in charge of national security if she hasn’t served but then remembers to check history. "If you look at the military record of our country’s recent presidents," she said to Women’s eNews, "almost none of them had military experience."
Schapper now works as a research analyst in Washington, D.C., and volunteers with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a civilian advocacy group.
Her advice to the next commander in chief: "I would request that they limit deployments and the time you have between deployments," she said. "That is really hurting morale."
The women–drawn from the U.S. Marine Corps, the Army and the Navy–came together in New York to share their experiences at a March 11 panel discussion at the Women’s Mosaic, a New York nonprofit that presents cultural and educational programs.
They said female soldiers are often cast by fellow soldiers in the role of mothers, sisters, mediators and therapists and that they often become emissaries for complaints that men are afraid to air with their superiors.
Like a Mum to Others
Other soldiers perceived Schapper, 30, almost like a "mum" because she was one of the only women, she said. "Whenever we were hit by an improvised explosive device I would go ask the men involved if they were OK. If I would ask them, they could say it freaked them out. They also came to me with their family problems. They thought I always had the woman’s perspective on what their wife was doing."
Petty Officer Emily Stroia, who joined the U.S. Navy at age 17, said she became the go-to person when people were uncomfortable addressing an issue with higher ranking officers.
Like Schapper, she feels that the next president needs to do more for soldiers.
"The quality of life definitely needs to be improved," she said. "Better quality of food. Some down time. For example, on the ship, there are so many sad, sad people. And the only thing that brings you up is your friends. Civilians can’t understand what you are going through."
The difficulty, she said, stems from long deployments at sea, typically six months. She said four-day stopovers on land didn’t help much. "It was like a tease to be on land to see your family for a few days only to just go back out."
As women, it was just as hard making the transition to civilian life as it was adjusting to masculine military structures, the veterans said. Gender misconceptions rage in both settings.
On the home front, the women said they often faced a trivialization of their service, such as people who didn’t believe that women really participate in combat.
"You were in Iraq? Say what?" is a sputter that Sgt. Chrissy DeCaprio typically encounters in her civilian social interactions, which is then often followed by, "Did you have to shave your head?"
Comrades Still Surprised
Even her friend and fellow marine, Alexis Mulero, has a hard time hiding his surprise at everything DeCaprio has accomplished. "Quiet, humble, sincere, you wouldn’t think she is in the Marines if you saw her at a bar, if you didn’t see her in uniform."
The idea of DeCaprio wielding a 50-caliber heavy machine gun while leading her team is a stretch for most uniformed and civilian-clad imaginations. But DeCaprio, a small-framed woman who wears her hair tucked into a tidy bun, said she has adapted to the attention and disbelief.
"As a woman, if you join the Marines, you will encounter a lot of firsts," she told Women’s eNews. "And you are going to have to know how to present yourself. You have to take charge of a marine. And you can’t be quiet about it."
"DeCaprio" in uniform and "Chrissy" out of it, she was the first female New York native to receive the combat action ribbon. Soft-spoken and smiling, DeCaprio describes being cool in combat. Once, she pried the dismembered hand of a fellow marine from the clasp of an Iraqi woman who wanted to keep it as a souvenir after their convoy was hit.
Even though women go through the same training, the veterans said that men in the Army are still surprised to see them handling heavy ammunition, taking control in combat or simply entering the mess. The idea that women can participate and command in war–or be hurt in combat or suffer post-traumatic stress disorder–doesn’t always quite sink in, even though there have been 95 female fatalities in Iraq since the start of the war, most of them due to hostile fire or explosives.
"Take PTSD," said Schapper. When women suffer post-traumatic stress disorder she said it’s often automatically assumed to be tied to sexual trauma. "If a woman has PTSD she must have been molested. And that is not true . . . Women go into battle and get hurt."
Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.
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