FORT IRWIN, Calif. — Women in the military may not have been allowed to enter combat jobs in the past, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been involved in it.
“We did get into a lot of fire fights,” said Sgt. Dianeya Nodarse of her two deployments as a wheeled vehicle driver, one to Iraq and the other to Afghanistan.
While in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009, her vehicle rolled over and she spent a month in the hospital downrange, along with the first sergeant she was driving.
“As far as the mission, I’m right there with (the men),” Nodarse said. “They didn’t discriminate at all.”
She’s not alone. In the last decade, the Defense Department estimates 280,000 women have deployed to the two countries.
Now with 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Nodarse has proven herself time and again, and was selected to drive the battalion’s command sergeant major.
Never has she felt she was held back for being a woman. The only time it really comes up, she said, is that she keeps the Humvee clean and smelling fresh, which she takes some jokes for.
Women make up about 15 percent of America’s fighting force and before the Defense Department rescinded the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule for women on Jan. 24, about 92 percent of specialties were available to them.
When Nodarse joined the Army in 2006, she was hesitant, more so because she was born in Cuba and didn’t realize she could sign up. Concern about her gender came second.
“As a woman too, with all these guys around being hard core, I wanted to do that,” she said. “It’s just a personal experience thing. I wanted to see if I could make it. Now I love it. I couldn’t sit around in an office.”
Ready to qualify
Pfc. Maya Neal, serves as military police in the same battalion and said her dad had reservations about her joining the Army. She was only 17 and needed parental consent, which she said took a lot of convincing. Once she got through basic training, she said he realized she could do it.
“It’s an experience,” Neal said. “I don’t second guess myself. … You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Now that the ban has been lifted and new jobs will become available to women in the coming months and years, Nodarse said she is interested in anything she qualifies for.
She enjoys physical activity, maxing out on her physical training test twice, and is ready for any challenge now available, as long as she qualifies.
“If I don’t qualify, don’t pick me,” she said, understanding the gravity of some Army jobs. “I don’t want to cause somebody their life.”
Pvt. Chelsea Stenner joined the Army just less than a year ago, and is eager to get into any course she can, including Army Ranger School.
“It’s the physical challenge,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s all boys.”
She’s the only female engineer in 3rd Brigade’s Charlie Company, 3rd Special Troops Battalion. She operates heavy equipment and digs trenches for fighting positions, the field kitchen or anything else needed from her.
“Nobody has any doubt in me,” Stenner said. “I do everything (the men) do. They don’t expect anything less of me.”
Engineering is an Army field with few women, but Stenner said she never thought about that when she joined up.
First Sgt. Sean Nelson, of Stenner’s company, said she is the first female he has ever been in charge of in his entire Army career.
“It’s not difficult, but it presents certain challenges, all of which are manageable,” he said. “She doesn’t want us to make any special arrangements for her. She wants everyone to know she can do exactly the same thing we can do as males.”
With the ban lifted, Nelson said he believes women can achieve success in combat positions.
“I say that, because some of the males can’t,” he said. “It’s going to be a very interesting time in the Army… There are females out there fight now who can step and do combat (jobs).”
Maj. Christina Cook, 3rd Brigade’s engineer, said women shouldn’t take lightly the equality they’ve asked for.
She returned from Afghanistan less than five months ago, and has also spent time deployed to Iraq and Kosovo in her 14 years in the Army.
She worries that women could now be forced into combat jobs they don’t want.
Even though, she initially wanted to go into the infantry, she said if she could do it all again, she would stick with engineering.
“You may want something, but when you get older you realize everyone has roles — every job is important,” Cook said.
“If you do your job to the best of your ability, you are giving as much to the fight as an infantryman.”
It takes four people to support one infantryman, she said.
For those women that want to get out into combat, Cook said go for it and stay strong.
“Have a support network. Being in the military alone is very stressful and you need a support team,” Cook said. “Being first, all eyes are on you. Make sure you’re ready to do the same standards, because that’s what they’re looking for.”