MICHELE NORRIS, host:
All this week, we're talking about women in the military. Since 2002, women have served close to 170,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. They make up about 10 percent of U.S. forces in those countries. The U.S. military does not assign women to ground combat units. Still, women are experiencing combat. Today, impressions of war from three female service members who spent time in Iraq.
Sergeant Griselda Benavides and Lance Corporal Mary Carnes are Marines out of Camp Pendleton, California. They were deployed to Anbar province from February 2006 to February 2007. Army Staff Sgt. Laurie Perez Hawkins from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, spent time in Anbar as well as in Baghdad from August 2004 to June 2005. Here are their stories starting with Sergeant Benavides.
Sergeant GRISELDA BENAVIDES (U.S. Marines): My job was to work on the radios, make sure all vehicles had com; that all the vehicles could speak to each other. And while we were out there, we had to call back to base, let them know what was going on. If there's any trouble, we had to let them know.
Lance Corporal MARY CARNES (U.S. Marines): We did a lot of maintenance work, as far as you know, like maintaining places for convoys that came through to sleep in, we would put up a barbwire in places they needed to be put up.
Staff Sergeant LAURIE PEREZ HAWKINS (U.S. Army): I was a civil affairs soldier. Basically, we were the liaison between the military and the civilian. And we do a lot of patrols and assessments and talking with the locals and the local officials to try to get them back on their feet.
Sgt. BENAVIDES: We would get nervous because you never know what's going to happen. You don't know what to expect.
Staff Sgt. HAWKINS: It is very scary. As a matter of fact, I think it was our fifth day in Camp Fallujah when we experienced our first mortar round. And it exploded and hit a wall that was probably about 50 feet away from where we were standing.
Lance Cpl. CARNES: We were - well, we were actually patrolling up one of the hills, and a mortar came in. It was really close and we just hit the ground and tried to get cover.
Sgt. BENAVIDES: Like on convoys, sometimes, IEDs would go off. I had an IED go off in the vehicle that was right in front of me one time. And it just, it shook the vehicle that I was in. It wasn't too bad that time. None of the guys got - they all survived it.
Lance Cpl. CARNES: In Iraq, the way that the war is, anywhere you are is the front lines. As long as we're there, we're in the frontline, because even if you're on camp, you can still get hit.
Staff Sgt. HAWKINS: In Iraq, to me, the frontline is the unknown. I'm not sure who is my enemy, who were my allies.
Sgt. BENAVIDES: There was a need for women search teams. There were males disguising themselves as females because they knew that they weren't going to get searched. So they were crossing the checkpoints, hiding stuff on themselves that has gone down a lot because they know that we're searching the women.
Lance Cpl. CARNES: I think that we've done a lot of good in Iraq. I think that because women are there, you know, we're reaching out not just to men of Iraq but also the women. We help the Iraqi women understand what we, as American women, have. And I think that's something - I know that for me that was an eye-opener. I didn't - I mean, I had heard that Iraqi women didn't really have all the privileges or all of the freedoms that we had. But it's not something that really clicked with me until I actually saw it. And I saw the way they were treated by their husbands in the way that, you know, they didn't really have any freedoms. They couldn't make any choices. They were all made for them.
Sgt. BENAVIDES: I remember this one particular day, there was a group of men and they were all laughing and I asked the translator, what are they laughing about? They're laughing at you because you're a woman, and I remember I told him to tell them that I had a weapon.
Staff Sgt. HAWKINS: You can hear them talking about me and asking why I'm there and a lot of them would ask me, where is my husband or my children, and how come I'm not home with my children. I tell them that I'm a soldier and I'm here to fight with my fellow soldiers and it took them a long time to grasp that concept.
Lance Cpl. CARNES: If we keep doing our job well, then they will keep giving females the chance to do what we did.
Sgt. BENAVIDES: And we're having the same experiences as the men out there.
Staff Sgt. HAWKINS: Female soldiers are trained the same exact way male soldiers are trained in basic training and throughout their advanced individual training in their particular specialties in the Army. We all have the same training.
Sgt. BENAVIDES: We have the same worries. We miss the same things. We're not that much different than males out there.
Lance Cpl. CARNES: Respect for anybody is earned, so it's not just for a female, it's also for a male. You know, a male has to prove to me that he's a good Marine that, you know, he can pull his weight.
Staff Sgt. HAWKINS: Enlisting into the Army, being a female, you really have to know that that's what you want to do - that you're not going just be a female, sit behind some desk job. If you're going to sign up, you've got to know that you've got to be thick-skinned and that you're going to be working with males and you can't be crying and complaining that you have PMS or anything. You've got to suck it up and be like a man.
Lance Cpl. CARNES: I don't know if they, you know, if they really realize exactly what we're doing. But I think that as more of us go out and do it, and as we come home and we tell our family and our friends and our relatives. And as the word gets out, I think that more, you know, more and more people will realize how important than we all are.
NORRIS: That's Marine Lance Corporal Mary Carnes, Army Staff Sergeant Laurie Perez Hawkins and Marine Sergeant Griselda Benavides. Their personal photos from Iraq are at our Web site, npr.org.
Tomorrow, opposing views about Pentagon policy governing women in combat.