A Woman Soldier's Battles on the Front Lines

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Alex Chadwick speaks with Abby Pickett of Wisconsin, who served in the National Guard, about her experiences on the front lines in Iraq. They also discuss a proposal by the House Armed Services Committee that could effectively ban women from engaging in direct combat.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And now to Specialist Abbie Pickett. She's currently with the Army National Guard in Wisconsin, and formerly in Iraq with the 229th Combat Support Engineers. We spoke by phone. She's on Capitol Hill in Washington now with an Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group, Operation Truth. She's lobbying for women to continue being assigned in the military as they are.

Abbie Pickett, when did you join the National Guard and why?

Specialist ABBIE PICKETT (Wisconsin Army National Guard): I joined at 17. Basically, I was being young and feeling that it was a civic duty.

CHADWICK: So at 17 you went into the Army National Guard. But of course, there was no war in Iraq then. You didn't think you were going into combat, did you?

Spc. PICKETT: Nope. Actually, my training got held, so I didn't end up going into training until late 2001. My zero day for basic training was 9/11.

CHADWICK: Really?

Spc. PICKETT: Yeah.

CHADWICK: Well, so at that point things did change in the country. Did you begin to think, `Hey, I could sometime go somewhere and wind up actually fighting'?

Spc. PICKETT: Yeah. I mean, obviously, being on an installation base where you have drill sergeants, they definitely pound it into your head.

CHADWICK: But still, the policy of the Army was not to send--was specifically to not send women into combat.

Spc. PICKETT: Well, being part of combat support engineers, my unit is high-to-call.

CHADWICK: High...

Spc. PICKETT: Ranked...

CHADWICK: ...to-call. It means they call you first?

Spc. PICKETT: Yup. We're ranked among engineers as being some of the best in the nation, which means, you know, when you're signing on you get the extra benefits and perks and yada, yada, yada. But you also know that, hey, if something's gonna happen, we'll probably be there.

CHADWICK: In May of 2003--that's right after we've gone into Iraq and Saddam Hussein is out and on the run, and you're deployed there with this team of combat support engineers--you're going around getting bases ready, getting checkpoints ready, building helipads--how long was it before you were shot at?

Spc. PICKETT: I was one of this--one of the only females that got to go out on this what we call a hearts-and-minds mission. We were there to help build schools in Tikrit, which is obviously a very loyalist town and...

CHADWICK: That's Saddam Hussein's hometown. There was a lot of fighting around there.

Spc. PICKETT: Correct. One of the missions, like my third time outside the wire, all of a sudden all these kids disappeared there--whispering, and just took off, and we had the emergency whistle and we mounted up. And that was, I mean, the first fear, I guess. When you go through these towns and cities there are obviously these places where you can feel that they're just looking at you terribly, and you wonder who's got a weapon--and driving a fuel truck, which was my job...

CHADWICK: A fuel truck? You're driving a fuel truck?

Spc. PICKETT: Correct. Obviously, it's a big target. So there's, I mean, always that threat.

CHADWICK: Among the soldiers serving in Iraq--those that you were with, those you were driving trucks with and building these bases with--did they seem to regard you differently? I mean, they felt it was OK for you to be driving a truck?

Spc. PICKETT: Yeah, I mean, we were doing 24-hour missions in Samarra, and I think the guys all felt confident with me out there.

CHADWICK: I have to say that women of my age, growing up--this is a generation older than you--wouldn't have expected this. I mean, when you were a kid, you just wouldn't have expected this. You wouldn't have expected to be in a combat role. You really are in a combat role.

Spc. PICKETT: Oh, yeah. Every woman that's over there, I mean, is in a combat role. If she goes out on Highway 1, she's in a combat role. And let me make that clear, that, you know, most of these bases get mortared. And these women, since day one, we have been in a combat role. So to say, you know, that we don't want to send women now, you know, with these forward operating troops just shows ignorance on the part of what's going on. They have no idea. They're so out of touch with their constituents that they don't know that there are women already in the combat zone.

CHADWICK: This is because a House committee last night voted to prohibit women in the military from being in direct ground combat roles; that is, you can't be in the infantry. But what you're saying is it doesn't matter whether you're in the infantry or in the combat support engineers. In Iraq, if you're there, you're going to get shot at, you're going to get mortared. That's just the way things are.

Spc. PICKETT: Yeah. I mean, I knew females over there that would drive the Humvees in to do raids. Obviously, females that are part of the military police--and they're doing a lot of, you know, door-to-door, street-walking type stuff.

CHADWICK: What do you want to happen? Do you thing that women should be in combat roles? Do you think you should be in the infantry?

Spc. PICKETT: I think we already are in combat roles. Whether or not you want to label it infantry--I mean, it's a title.

CHADWICK: Well, it's actually--it's a designation for a...

Spc. PICKETT: It is a designation, but you know what? When we came over there and we didn't have missions, we were out there doing convoy security. They were going along on raids, and they were infantry. So it's seriously a title.

CHADWICK: Abbie, what do you want to do now? You're in college in Madison at Madison Area Technical College. You're going to get out of college someday. Are you going to stay in the National Guard? What are you going to do?

Spc. PICKETT: I'm not really sure. I'm just kind of taking it day by day right now. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. And I'm just kind of seeing what opportunities are out there. And I'm like any other college kid; you know, we're going to change our major about 5,000 times, so can't give any definites at this point.

CHADWICK: Abbie Pickett of the Army National Guard's 134th Public Affairs Unit based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Abbie, thank you for joining us on DAY TO DAY.

Spc. PICKETT: Thank you very much for the invite. I'm--my pleasure.

CHADWICK: The debate over women in the military continues next week when the entire House of Representatives is expected to take up the measure.

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