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Women in the military

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Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 12:00 pm

By Colleen Flaherty

Fort Hood Herald

Sgt. Laura Todd was inside Forward Operating Base Warrior, Iraq, during a 2009 deployment with 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, when a rocket landed just outside its confines.

"There was an explosion off the (base) and the concussion blast blew me off my feet," said Todd. She finished her deployment with the rest of 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment. "We just run on pure adrenaline." It was only upon returning home that Todd noticed something was wrong.

"I couldn't figure out which slot the fork went into in the drawer, or I couldn't (remember) how to tie my shoes, things like that," she said.

Todd was soon diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and assigned to Fort Hood's Warrior Transition Brigade, where she is undergoing treatment for the condition and beginning to think about leaving the military after more than 13 years of combined active-duty, Reserve and National Guard service.

"My military career is done, so I'm learning now to transition, how to be a civilian," said Todd, 45.

Todd's story, not uncommon, highlights the ever-changing role of women in the military. Although the Defense Department still restricts female soldiers in direct ground combat, the asymmetrical nature of the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan have pushed women to the front lines anyway.

"The nature of today's conflicts is evolving; there are no front lines in Afghanistan," or Iraq, said department spokesperson Eileen M. Lainez in an email interview. "While women are not assigned to units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground, this doesn't mean they are not assigned to positions in combat zones that could place them in danger."

Of women, Lainez said, "They are an integral part of our military, and we could not perform the mission without them."

Fastest-growing group

Last fiscal year, 16 percent of all active-duty soldiers were females, according to the Department of the Army.

A III Corps spokesman said 7,700 of them are assigned to Fort Hood among about 53,000 soldiers total.

Since 2003, 89 Army women have died in combat, of 3,232 soldiers in all.

Female veterans are the fastest-growing group of veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the last 10 years, women's enrollment at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System has grown from about 1,000 to 12,000, said Vivian Minns, women's outreach specialist. That's led the hospital complex to revamp its women's clinics with increased maternity and other services, in addition to kid- and family-friendly touches in recent years.

"We are constantly thinking of different tools to target female veterans," said Minns, a Navy veteran. "For a long time we weren't recognized, but now they're starting to really recognize women through all the advocacy that we have done and all the changes that have come down the pipeline."

Evolving roles

At nearly 40 years of active-duty service, Chief Warrant Officer-5 Jeanne Pace has seen female service members' roles evolve first hand.

Widely believed to be the Army's longest-serving female soldier, Pace entered the military in 1972 as part of the Women's Army Corps. The branch was absorbed by the Army in 1978, after the end of the Vietnam War and during the women's liberation movement.

"They knew they weren't going to get enough volunteers from the men to serve in all the different support roles and free men up to serve in the true combat arms," said Pace, 57, who deployed once to Iraq with III Corps Headquarters and currently is assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division Band's rear detachment.

Although Pace said the military has come a long way since then, the early years of integration proved difficult, especially as she moved up in rank.

"I had significant challenges in my early days," she said. "I felt going up through the ranks, the more authority you gain, you have that authority over males, and there's more resistance to it."

Pace said she fielded comments from subordinates such as, 'I joined the Army to get away from my mother, I don't want to have to listen to you.'"

Todd, an Army mechanic, agreed. Women historically have had to work harder to gain the respect of their male counterparts, she said. "If they give 100 percent, you've got to give 110 percent. If they show up at 6:30 (a.m.), you've got to show up at 6 (a.m.). You've always got to stay one step ahead of the curve, until you do get accepted into the little group and proved you can do it, then you're fine after that."

Fitting in easier

Capt. Trish Kelley, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who was born in 1978, said there are relics of the "old boys club" in today's Army, a traditional male proving ground, but she knows she had it easier than female soldiers who came before her.

Kelley said she often tells senior female officers and noncommissioned officers "thank you" for paving the way for younger soldiers.

"I just know that she's done something, overcome some major hurdle in her career," she said. "Every single one of them I've met has had a story to tell."

Contact Colleen Flaherty at colleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.

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