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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

More than a quarter of a million female soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and supporting operations. They make up the largest group of female veterans in this country's history.

Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio recently visited two women whose friendship is bound by combat experience, motherhood and an understanding of what it means to be a female veteran.

JESSICA JONES: Yolanda Mayo lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood not far from Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Her comfortable home is filled with military keepsakes from the enormous shell casings flanking her fireplace to a vintage set of Marine Corps china on her dining room table.

(Soundbite of dishes)

Ms. YOLANDA MAYO (Veteran, United States Marine Corps): It's the second pattern that I've actually found. I mean, it was at a yard sale. It had the gold and the green, and it had an emblem on it. And I was, like, this is fabulous.

JONES: Mayo is a Marine reservist with many years of active duty, including three tours of Iraq under her belt. Her friend Rose Noel visiting from just outside Jacksonville, spent two decades in the Marines and also served in Iraq. Noel says the china doesn't surprise her at all.

Ms. ROSE NOEL (Veteran, United States Marine Corps): I would expect nothing less...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOEL: ...from Yolanda, being a sergeant major in the Marine Corps, that's what she should have in her dining room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JONES: Mayo and Noel both joined the Marines during college in the early 1980s, when women were still required to wear the same regulation shade of red lipstick. By the time they deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mayo says the old rules barring women from combat didn't make sense any more.

Ms. MAYO: How do you exclude from combat when combat comes to you no matter where you're at? There isn't a front line. That front line thing in the past, in World War I, II, that's not warfare of today.

JONES: Noel - a well-dressed, Volvo-driving mother of two - was awarded a Purple Heart after she was injured. But Noel says sometimes people just don't believe it's hers.

Ms. NOEL: I have a Purple Heart license plate, and a lot of people ask me, you know, what happened to my husband? You know, where was he when he got hurt? Society is still slow on the uptake on that we're still out there doing the same things the guys are doing. Which means that we're going to come home wounded.

Ms. MAYO: And there are going to be many more of us.

JONES: Mayo was a public affairs officer in Iraq. In 2003, she spent weeks on a truck with Marines traveling from Kuwait to the heart of Iraq. Noel was on base in 2005 when shrapnel from an indirect-fired rocket pierced her cheek and broke her jaw. Surgeons wanted to send her home, but Noel, who headed a 700-member squadron, refused.

Ms. NOEL: I took away that part of the equation for people to say she went home because she was a woman. That's something that's brought up a lot, as to whether women are going to be strong enough to handle, you know, a combat situation. And I think that that definitely is an important part of setting the example and the tone.

JONES: When Mayo was deployed, her husband cared for their children. Noel, who's divorced, left her sons with her mom in Michigan. She says most mothers can't relax after a deployment.

Ms. NOEL: She comes right from being the Marine or the soldier or sailor to mom, and there is no transition.

Ms. MAYO: Even when deployed, you don't stop being a mom. I had teachers emailing me with grades and telling me things that were going on.

JONES: Both Mayo and Noel say being on active duty was a constant juggling act. They have PTSD-related insomnia from years of erratic sleep schedules and combat missions. But both say they're proud of their military and personal accomplishments.

Ms. NOEL: Hopefully, some young females will be able to see that there are role models out there.

Ms. MAYO: You can kind of have it all. You can be a mom. You can be, you know, a wife. And you can be a Marine, a soldier, an airman, whatever you choose. If you want to serve your country, you can do it.

JONES: Mayo says there are now five female sergeant majors including herself in the Marine Corps Reserve. She's looking forward to the day when there are just too many to count.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

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