Female servicewomen: 'I am not here by mistake'


Published Jan 27, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

For some servicewomen, the significance of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision last week to lift the 1994 ban on women in combat was not just that it gives them the opportunity to fight but that it offers women a chance to advance in a career in which combat experience remains essential -- if they remain in the military, which some have not.

Zoe Bedell, 27, a Princeton graduate, joined the Marines after graduating from Princeton in 2007 and two years later was in Afghanistan as a logistics officer, a job that largely confined her to a desolate base in Helmand Province, in the south. But in what became the highlight of her tour, in early 2010 Bedell spent three weeks with five other women attached to a Special Forces unit patrolling Marja, an opium poppy breadbasket that had been the site of a U.S. offensive against the Taliban a short time before.

The experience was so powerful — Bedell worked with the Special Forces to try to gather intelligence and build a relationship with local people — that on a second deployment to Afghanistan in late 2010 she was excited to command some 40 women in what were called “female engagement teams.”

The teams, each made up of two or three female Marines who accompanied all-male infantry patrols, frequently came under fire as they moved from village to village in Helmand trying to win over Afghan women who were culturally off limits to outside men.

The violence made American male commanders, already nervous that they were stretching the rules against women in combat, restrict the female Marines’ movements and insist, Bedell said, that the teams have appointments before venturing to remote rural homes.

“How do you make an appointment?” Bedell said. “You have to go out on patrol and get to know people.”

After the end of her deployment in April 2011 she left active duty.

“Ultimately, it was only ever going to be a supporting effort,” she said. “In an organization whose mission was fighting, I wasn’t allowed to fight.” She knew that going in, she said, but it was hard to come up against the reality. It was also hard to learn that three years of Arabic in college would not help land her a Marine intelligence job she wanted because it was categorized as a combat position.

Today Bedell is a financial analyst at a small investment bank in New York and is headed to law school in the fall.

Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, 47, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduated in only the seventh class to admit women.

“I was not going to let those guys make me cry,” she told The Washington Post in 2011. That seemed her motto as the 6-foot-tall college basketball player steadily rose through the military’s ranks.

She led a communications battalion in Falluja, Iraq, during brutal battles there in 2004 and 2005. She chose communications as a specialty, she said in the 2010 interview, because it was a demanding job — requiring her to build a data, radio and telephone network from scratch — that was close to the action but still open to women.

“I wanted to be out in the field,” she said.

By 2010, Reynolds was in Afghanistan as commanding officer of Camp Leatherneck, a sprawling base of thousands of Marines in Helmand. By 2011, she had become a one-star general running Parris Island.

“I am not here by mistake, because it was time to put a girl here,” she told reporters when she arrived. “I was the right person for the job.”

What no one will ever know is whether she would have risen higher than a one-star general in charge of a training mission if the Pentagon’s change had come sooner.

-- Elisabeth Bumiller and James Dao, New York Times News Service

Profiles of Eight Women Who Died in Combat

Last week's decision by the U.S. Department of Defense to open up combat positions to women was certainly a historic day for the U.S. Armed Forces, but American women have actually been seeing combat for some time now. In wars without a defined front line, where anywhere can quickly become a combat zone, the difference between ”combat” and ”non-combat” roles often breaks down. One hundred fifty-two women have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight lost their lives last year. These are their stories.

ARMY SPC. BRITTANY GORDON

Died: Oct. 13 in Kandahar

Age:24

A native of St. Petersburg, Florida - and daughter of the city's assistant police chief - Gordon was nicknamed ”Queen Bee” by her friends and graduated high school in 2006. She had expressed interest in a career in law and spent a year at the University of Florida before signing up for the Army. She worked as an intelligence analyst and spent a year on a base in Seattle before being sent to Afghanistan.

Gordon was killed by a suicide bomber who attacked a U.S. delegation delivering furniture to the remote Maruf district of Kandahar province. A former U.S. military officer and four Afghan intelligence personnel were also killed in the bombing.

Gordon, who turned 24 just days before her death, had been scheduled to return home last December. ”If I would describe her, she had no fear. She wanted to make a difference. Because that's what military people do: make a difference in the lives of others,” her cousin, the Rev. Evelyn Thompson, told the Tampa Bay Times.

MARINE SGT. CAMELLA STEEDLEY

Died: Oct. 3 in Helmand Province

Age: 31

Steedley first joined the Marines in 2001 and was serving on her first deployment to Afghanistan. Steedley was an air operations clerk serving with the 1st Marine Logistics Group. The Marine Corps has said only that she died ”supporting combat operations” in Helmand, and the circumstances of her death are currently under investigation.

Steedley, originally from San Diego, lived in San Clemente with her husband of eight years, also a marine, and their four children. She had received numerous commendations including two Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals, three certificates of commendation, and numerous others.

ARMY SGT. DONNA JOHNSON

Died: Oct. 1 in Khost

Age: 29

A member of the North Carolina Army National Guard, Johnson was on her second tour of duty after having deployed to Iraq in 2007. Johnson was killed along with two other members of the guard after a suicide bomber detonated his vest while they were on foot patrol in a market in the eastern city of Khost. She is survived by her wife, Tracy Dice, who also serves in the military.

Johnson, who married Dice in Washington D.C. in 2011, shortly after the repeal of the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, is the first known married, lesbian service member killed in action, and some supporters were angered when initial press reports failed to mention Dice. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Dice is not recognized by the Department of Defense as Johnson's spouse and is not listed as a next of kin - meaning she was not among those first informed of her wife's death and learned of it via the Internet - and is not eligible for the grief counseling or honors typically afforded military spouses. It was only thanks to an intervention from Johnson's mother that Dice was allowed to accompany the casket from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Dice is currently fighting a legal battle with the Department of Veterans' Affairs to be granted survivor's benefits as Johnson's widow. The U.S. Supreme Court is due to review the Defense of Marriage Act later this year.

ARMY CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 THALIA S. RAMIREZ

Died: Sept. 5 in Logar Province

Age: 28

Though she listed San Antonio as her hometown when she enlisted, Ramirez grew up mostly in Nairobi, the daughter of a Kenyan mother and a Puerto Rican father. She joined the Army in 2003, shortly after moving to the United States, and initially worked as a water purification specialist before becoming a helicopter pilot in 2008. She was killed along with copilot and fellow Texan Jose Montenegro in a helicopter crash in Logar. The cause of the crash is still under investigation. She is survived by a husband, currently living in North Carolina, and her parents in Kenya.

Ramirez had escaped from a firefight in June and been awarded the Army's Air Medal. She had flown more than 20 missions and 650 hours on her tour of duty, which was scheduled to end in just days. ”She selflessly risked everything, on a regular basis, in defense of her brothers and sisters in arms,” her commander, Lt. Col. Landy Dunham, told the San Antonio Express-News.

ARMY STAFF SGT. JESSICA M. WING

Died: Aug. 27 in Kuwait City, Kuwait

Age: 42

A member of the Maine National Guard for eight years, Wing had previously served on active duty in the Army for 11 years, including deployments to Haiti and Bosnia. This was her third deployment to the Middle East as a member of the guard. The cause of her death, which was not related to combat, is currently under investigation.

Wing was a Black Hawk crew chief for the Bangor-based 126th Aviation Medevac unit, known as the ”Black Bears,” which works to airlift soldiers out of combat. In addition to serving in the guard, Wing had a second job fixing and maintaining helicopters at the Army Aviation Support Facility. With two decades of experience in repairing military helicopters, colleagues described her as a ”subject matter expert” and the unit's go-to person for maintenance questions.

Shortly before her fourth deployment in 2005, she told the Bangor Daily News, ”It doesn't matter how many times you've been deployed, once or 100 times, it's all the same. You don't know what you're getting into.”

ARMY PFC. PATRICIA L. HORNE

Died: Aug. 24 in Bagram

Age: 20

Horne had hoped to become a doctor after getting out of the Army and just a few weeks before her death, had called her mother to say she was planning to reenlist because ”the Army would pay for her schooling.” In the Army, Horne had worked as a human resource specialist, working to maintain soldiers' records for the elite 101st Airborne Division. The cause of her death has not been released.

In her hometown of Greenwood, Miss., Horne was remembered as ambitious and a perfectionist. ”Everything she wanted to do, she wanted to do it perfect,” her high school principal told the AP.

ARMY SPC. KRYSTAL FITTS

Died: July 17 in Kandahar

Age: 26

Fitts, of Houston, Texas, first joined the Army in 2009 as a chemical operations specialist. In Afghanistan, she volunteered to serve on a Female Engagement Team supporting the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. The FETs are special units of female troops assigned to engage with local women who might be wary of male soldiers. Fitts studied Pashto in order to better communicate with locals.

”They have been the literal face of America to a host of Afghan women and children,” Lt. Col. Timothy Gilhool, one her commanding officers, said. ”Krystal was unafraid. Her presence made the difference.” She had received numerous commendations, including the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. She was killed by indirect fire when her base came under attack.

On the day of her death, Fitts posted a photo of a soldier's helmet with a bullet hole through it on her Facebook page, with the caption, ”Remember so many have given of their lives that we have the privilege and the duty to make the most of ours. Let us do our best to live worthy of this freedom they fought and gave their all for us to enjoy.”

ARMY SPC. ERICA P. ALECKSEN

Died: July 8 in Maidan Shahr

Age: 21

Alecksen was killed along with five other members of her military police company when the truck they were riding in ran over an IED in a restive city near Kabul - one of the deadliest days in months for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. A native of the small town of Eatonton, Ga., Alecksen joined the Army in 2010 and was soon transferred to Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, taking along the husband she had met back home. She then shipped out for a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.

Alecksen had decided to become a military police officer after asking a retired general for advice after services at her church. He told her that MPs were assigned protect soldiers and their families. Family members credited long shifts spent working in her father's garage for the toughness and stoicism that served her well in the Army.

”If there was something she didn't like, you never heard it from her,” her grandfather told the Army Times. ”If there was something she did like, she might say something but not dwell on it.”

-- Joshua E. Keating, Foreign Policy