02/20/11 — Their view from the battlefield

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Their view from the battlefield

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on February 20, 2011 1:50 AM

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Dr. Laura Browder, far left, a professor at the University of Richmond, asks a question of a panel of women serving in the U.S. military during a discussion on the role of women in war on Friday night at the Wayne County Arts Council. From left: Browder, Marine Sgt. Julie Martinez, Army Spec. Randeep Kaur, Air Force Tech Sgt. Tammie Moore and Air Force Staff Sgt. Kimberly Walton.

Four female members of the U.S. military who have spent extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan described their experiences at a panel discussion Friday night at the Wayne County Arts Council.

The discussion was led by Dr. Laura Browder of the University of Richmond, who is the author of "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans."

The event was part of the annual Wayne County Reads initiative, which is based on the book "Three Cups of Tea," by author Chris Mortenson, who has spent the past decade working to create schools in Afghanistan.

Members of the panel included Tech. Sgt. Tammie Moore and Staff Sgt. Kimberly Walton, two members of the Air Force who are stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and Specialist Randeep Kaur of the U.S. Army and Sgt. Julie Martinez of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Ms. Browder said most Americans do not realize how many women are now in the armed forces and how much they contribute to the military presence in the theaters of war. Americans have always had a problem with the idea of putting women into combat, but that is what has happened in the past decade, she said, noting that there are no exact front lines or safe havens for troops fighting the Taliban.

"This is a watershed moment, not just for the military, but for the entire country," she said, pointing out that about 7,500 women served in Vietnam, mostly in clerical duties, and about 41,000 in the Persian Gulf War. Today, there are a quarter million women in the military, 100,000 of them mothers.

The panelists described their tours of duty and how they felt about their roles as women warriors in a land where women are seldom given the respect of men.

"It's a big deal to put a smile on a kid's face, or listen to an old person who is sick," Ms. Kaur said.

"I don't know of a better way of being a diplomat than joining the service," Ms. Martinez said. "You're going to have an impact."

All four agreed that they found the experience "empowering," but also noted that the sight of an American woman in a military uniform carrying a weapon had a powerful effect on Afghan women as well.

Women and girls would hide from male U.S. troops but showed less fear of female troops, they said. Young girls would come out from hiding to ask questions about their hair, why they did not wear a shawl over their head.

"It left a lasting impression on these women," Martinez said. "These women would just stare at us and be in awe that we could be considered equals and not somebody who could be dominated."

Ms. Browder asked each of the four what their most memorable moment was.

Ms. Moore said that hers came when a U.S. military doctor she worked with came up with an inexpensive "strong food," something like peanut butter, that the Afghans could make themselves. Thousands of Afghan children die from malnutrition, she said, so the development was especially satisfying.

Ms. Martinez also noted the extreme poverty of the people in Afghanistan.

"To these people, a shoelace is a lot. They live so simply. It opens your heart and mind. It changes you forever."

Moore, whose is preparing for her fifth deployment, said the poverty she saw made her more appreciative than ever of being an American.

"I think seeing so many people without so much makes you want to give," she said. It's sad to see people in need."

Ms. Kaur said her memories are of the children she came across.

"When you see an Afghan kid, they could be hungry, they could be shoeless, but the one thing they'll always ask you for is a pen," she said, noting the great hunger to be educated. She recalled one boy whom she gave a book that was written in both English and the Afghan language.

"Every time he saw me, he wanted to read a page he'd learned on his own to me," she said. "The eagerness in him to learn was amazing. It was beautiful."

Coming home is a blessing, the four women agreed, but it can problems as well as being deployed.

Ms. Walton said that after hearing the sound of explosions for so long, returnees are often jumpy at any sudden loud noise or other distraction that reminds them of being in theater.

"The slamming of a door, or running over something with your car, just the sight of trash bags or a dead animal beside the road ...," she said, noting that insurgents often place bombs in such locations. "I found myself swerving away from potholes. It took me months to get back to being normal."

Ms. Kaur said driving was a problem for her first few weeks back. After spending nearly a year driving a tank she discovered the pace of normal traffic disturbing.

"Too many, too close ... I get irritated. I had to wait a few weeks," she admitted.

She said that after returning to Fort Bragg, that when a night artillery barrage broke out she leaped out of bed and jumped under it, purely out of habit.

"You get used to hearing loud noises and reacting," she said, "and when you get home your brain still functions in the same way."

Guilt is another problem, the women said.

"I felt guilty that I was going home. I felt I could have done more," Ms. Martinez said. "Those are my brothers in arms, my sisters in arms and they're still over there.

Several said one of their biggest adjustments is simply getting used to a slower pace. After dealing with dangerous jobs on a daily basis for months at a time, it is difficult to get used to a slower pace, they said.

"You're over there and all you think about is your family, McDonalds, everything, ... but you get back and you want to go back," Ms. Martinez said.

"When you come back, there's this emptiness. You think about the people still there, the people who didn't make it back," said Ms. Kaur, who lost a close friend to enemy fire.

"I had a hard time dealing with that," she said. "I kept asking myself 'Why him?' He had a wife and two kids. ... I'd probably go back tomorrow if I could."