published Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Upton: Women fight for freedom

By Tabi Upton

Not all women want to stay home and guard the loot while men go off to war. Some want a piece of the action.

Twenty-five- year-old Roberta (not her real name) was one such woman. Born in Japan to adventurous ex-pat parents, she spent part of her growing-up years in Germany and various parts of the United States.

She ended up in military service, however, for one simple reason -- it was a ticket to college.

"It's kind of funny. I was in high school and I wanted to go to college, but I couldn't afford it. I was told there was this small chance of winning a ROTC scholarship for school," she says.

Roberta actually was awarded $85,000 toward her pursuit of higher education. There was just one catch. She had to enlist.

After completing basic training, she came home and began school at a nearby military college. Toward the end of her first year, she was deployed to Iraq. The scholarship should have prevented this and, had certain people come to her defense, she might have been able to remain at school. For unknown reasons this did not happen, and Roberta found herself on an aircraft headed for war.

"I wasn't scared by any means," she remembers. She figured once she did her year abroad, she'd be right back at school, finishing up her goals.

The challenges she faced as a military woman in Iraq were complex. Often, she had to travel with at least two other females or one other male. This was not just for her protection from the enemy but also from her fellow comrades.

"Harassment didn't happen in our unit, but it did in other units. Everyone has standards before combat, but once you get out there, people think everyone is beautiful. It got old quick, so I'd have to put [certain males] in their place. There were times it got pretty bad ... They would try to take advantage of you ... It takes a lot to unnerve me, but some females were really scared about it. 'I double dog dare you to put your hands on me,' that was my attitude."

Assaults against service members reached 26,000 in 2012, according to The Associated Press, though the military has been actively working to reduce these numbers and bring justice to victims. Roberta feels that many of the women who enlist may do so because they like the idea of secure employment, others seek self-confidence or are trying to escape from something back home.

Roberta soon settled into life in Iraq. "Iraq was hot, super stressful, long days, not a lot of sleep. I'd work a 14-hour shift and come back to my trailer and lie down. Five minutes later [an alarm would sound], and I'd have to put my uniform and gear back on and walk a half mile to the command center to await instructions."

To this day, Roberta can't stand the smell of Monster energy drinks because she drank so many of them to stay awake.

Roberta has found that returning to life back in the States can also be a challenge. For one, she doesn't always fit in with non-military women.

"They don't think the same way or have the same outlook. I'm always aware of my surroundings. I know how to have a good time, but even then I know what's going on around me at all times. The women here aren't as confident as women I'm used to being around [in the military]."

Women suffer from post-traumatic stress just as men do. Though most people who encounter service members in uniform are polite and even congratulatory, Roberta has met a detractor or two. One such man heckled her in an airport, tried to stop her from walking away and spat at her. What followed was reported back to Roberta, because she blacked out.

"They said I screamed and punched him, then went over a seat with him. He went to the hospital, and I almost went to jail."

Despite these types of episodes, Roberta is glad she enlisted. She remembers the camaraderie of her unit, how they looked out for each other, put each other's needs before their own.

"I can't imagine who I'd be if I hadn't joined."

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