This post is dedicated to the women who served on the front lines (even though the military and media outlets say we weren’t there) and to the new generation of bad ass women who are now serving in combat arms roles.
I think it’s important to let my readers know that I did nothing in Iraq that should be considered extraordinary. I did my job and was fortunate enough to make it home. I learned a lot about myself, both my strengths and weaknesses. I learned that I can push through anything no matter how afraid I am, which is the main reason I named my blog “Embracing the suck”. I don’t regret anything I did in Iraq, except for almost getting myself shot by a sniper. However, the rest I wouldn’t change.
I won’t lie, being a woman in a combat zone made things a hell of a lot more awkward and inconvenient for everyone involved. At that time (2006-2007) it was very rare to see another woman outside the wire. During my first tour I only three other women outside the wire and their jobs were combat-related in some form. Because I never saw other women I was constantly aware of how my gender complicated everything, specifically when I traveled.
I traveled all around Diyala province and always to tiny Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). The majority of the FOBs had less than 3 females, if any. This made finding a place to sleep more challenging as I had to be separated from the male soldiers. The same rule applied to the restrooms and showers. Personally, I would have been fine and felt safer sharing a room or tent with my male partner instead of having to barricade myself in a creepy little room with a broken lock. Figuring out where I was going to sleep was the first priority because I had to sleep somewhere safe.
Deluxe Accommodations (First World Problems, I know!)
FOB Normandy, where I went quite often, was a very small FOB with only had a handful of women. For that reason they didn’t have “Cadillacs” for women. “Cadillacs” were luxurious (by my military standards) trailers with air conditioning, running water, showers and flushing toilets. Unfortunately, because there were few women we weren’t given access to the “Cadillacs“. The only way I could use the “Cadillac” was if the leadership ok’ed it. Even if I was given approval, it was a huge hassle because it would have to closed off to all males and there would need to be guards stationed outside. No one wanted to the do all of that and I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it.
Thankfully there were facilities for women to shower, they just weren’t as nice, but I wasn’t picky. The women’s showers were in a little concrete room with a combination lock on the door that only females had the combo to. Inside room there were two concrete stalls to shower in and they looked like the concrete showers you would see at a pool or water park.
For non-military people who take a shower every day, imagine not having a shower for a week. I was at that point, and I was happy that I finally have enough time on the base to take one. I trudged across base to the little building with all of my hygiene items to the shower room. I was looking forward to finally being able to wash off the dirt, grime and sweat. I got undressed and jumped into the shower. I turned it on and was expecting a nice spray of water but all that came out of the shower head were drips of water.
I didn’t know whether to scream or cry, all I could say was, “What the fuck?!” So I got dressed again and went off to let someone know the showers were broken. The young private I found told me the female showers were out of water. I wasn’t even aware that could happen! I was pissed! The only alternative he had was to wait until the designated female hours for the shower tent. Of course the female hours were when I would be out again on a mission, so I had to wait. That’s when baby wipes became a necessity. I took many baby wipe baths in Iraq. It’s been 13 years and the smell of baby wipes still makes me gag.
Coffee….Just say no
One of the biggest inconveniences for me was what I was going to do if I needed to “go” outside the wire. I could hold it with no problem for a reasonable amount of time, but most of my missions were well over 12 hours. It became a legitimate concern and I didn’t want to just pee myself and go on as if nothing happened. So I kept myself in a constant state of dehydration to avoid having to go, because there’s no time to squat in combat. Which brings me to coffee! Midway through my first tour I learned a very important lesson about coffee. I learned that it acts as a diuretic and makes you need to “go” more often. This was a lesson I learned the hard way.
One night I had a short break between night missions, and I was tired, so I downed a huge coffee before loading into a Bradley (armored personnel carrier) to head out. Thirty minutes into the mission I had to go…badly. Thirty more minutes later I felt like I was in hell. I was trapped in a metal box with four men and my bladder felt like it was going to explode. I begged for them to let me out so I could go, but there was a high threat of snipers so they wouldn’t let me out. At that point, I was desperate and I would’ve risked taking a bullet over sitting for 6 hours on the verge of tears. All of that misery was caused by something as benign as coffee.
I didn’t know about it then, but there are wonderful products that make it easy and more convenient for women to go without needing to squat. I wish I’d had something like that when I was in that desperate situation.
Pain is weakness leaving the body
My biggest fear in Iraq was always that I would hit my “wall” physically and be useless or a liability to the unit I was out with. The gear issued to me didn’t enhance my physical abilities, it hindered them. Everything I wore was designed for a man’s body (typical for that time). Not just that, it also wasn’t designed for a small person. At the time I was 5’6” and 95lbs. I was 95lbs wearing body armor with side plates with ammo, camera, batteries, tapes and two weapons and when I was fully “kitted up” I was carrying another 40lbs on my frame. All 40lbs just pressed down and sat on my shoulders because I couldn’t adjust my armor. I was in constant and excruciating pain just standing upright and it was worse when we were standing still for too long. The only time it didn’t bother me was when my adrenaline was pumping and we were running. Like in the picture below, I was feeling no pain!
Though the body armor experience sucked and slowed me down, I made it through and came out a stronger person. I’m grateful for my acquired ability to ignore excruciating pain and continue to function. It’s come in handy many times over the years! I’ve learned I can ignore a lot of unpleasant things without really trying too hard.
There so much more I could write but it’s late and I have to wake up early. I hope you at least got a chuckle out of my misery. It sucked at the time, but I would do it all again. It makes me smile when I think about it. It’s just another ridiculous chapter in my life.