We’d rolled out of the gate in the pre-dawn hours that morning in the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and at the time, Al Qaeda in Iraq’s last urban stronghold, and I was on top of an up-armored HUMVEE with my .50 cal. Just as we’d exited the base and our headlights hit the rooftops of the city, I saw what must have been nearly one hundred people rise up into the skyline. I’d started screaming something incoherent about “they’re everywhere” and raised my weapon, but thankfully, my trainer, a machine gunner from the unit that we were replacing in theater, grabbed my hands, laughing while doing so, and told me to stand down.
“They sleep on their roofs at night,” he said, still laughing. “It’s so hot here that the inside of their houses is like an oven. Would you want to sleep in an oven?”
“Oh,” I said, and then puked over the side of the truck.
I should have relayed this story two weeks later when my actual gun truck team rolled out of the gate for the first time as a permanent unit after the unit we’d replaced had gone home. It could have saved me a Snickers bar.
“Check point set,” Sergeant Vormestrand (we called him Sgt. V. for reasons you can probably deduce) called out over the radio once our gun truck, the convoy’s lead gun truck, was in position. The rest of the convoy then began snaking by us en route to our destination. We were pulling convoy security, escorting tractor trailers carrying various supplies around different parts of the country.
“What’s that?” I said, hearing a noise that sounded like chewing coming through my headset. I was once again in the turret, watching the alleyways for suicide borne vehicles and other threats, but I was connected, at least by sound, to Sergeant V., our truck commander, and to our driver, Specialist Emily Pearson, by our truck’s internal communications system.
“Nothing,” Emily said, trying to sound innocent, but not succeeding.
“Bull crap, Pearson!” Sgt. V. said. “You’re eating something. What do you have to eat?”
“Candy bars,” she said, coming clean.
“What kind of candy bars?” I asked.
“Milky way. Reese cups. Snickers…”
“You have a Snickers!” Sgt. V. and I said in unison. “I want it!” Both of us went the driver’s seat.
“Lake!” Emily said. “I think I saw someone on the rooftop at twelve o’clock.”
“Stop screwing around, Pearson, and give me the Snickers!” Sgt. V. said, trying to get his elbow padded arm sleeve unstuck from one of the truck’s numerous gadgets it had gotten stuck on before I got my knee padded and groin protected leg unstuck from a similar gadget in my turret. As bogged down as we were with all of the PPE (personal protective equipment) that we had to wear, it was always best not to change positions once you’d gotten free from everything you’d gotten hung on while getting into the truck, but a Snickers bar in Iraq changed everything.
“No. Seriously!” she said. “Lake, shine your spotlight on the roof at twelve o’clock.”
I did, and just like two weeks before, a dozen people who had been sleeping on their rooftops sat up.
“Oh my God!” Emily yelled. She freaked out and dropped the candy bar into the mess known as the communications system in the center of the truck when she saw the dark figures on the rooftops sit up.
“Sergeant V! Where’s your gunner!” the angry voice (the ALWAYS angry voice) of our platoon leader came across the radio.
“He’s down here,” Sgt. V. said, slapping my foot away from the Snickers bar with one hand while reaching for it himself with the other. I was trying my best to kick his hand away, but I still had not managed to free my leg.
“Oh my God, Lake! They’re everywhere!” Emily was shouting. “Shoot ‘em! Shoot ‘em!”
“They’re just sleeping,” I said. “They sleep on their rooftops because their ovens are houses or something.”
“What?!” she said, no longer scared, but now confused. “That doesn’t even make any sense?”
“You get your worthless, good for nothing, dead beat gunner back up in that turret, now!” shouted the platoon leader.
“We have an emergency,” Sgt. V. said.
“Pearson dropped a Snickers bar!”
And thus officially began the convoy security missions of what would be my main team for most of the year in Iraq.
Now, to explain the significance behind the relaxed, well lubed unity of our team- a team that by this time was made up of three members, all of whom could nearly read each other’s minds- we have to go back four months farther and to a different place entirely. Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, the location from which our unit mobbed, and where our teams were put together.
No biggie, right?
Our unit was a combat arms unit, 13 Bravo, or Field Artillery (though I was an 11-B Infantryman who had recently transferred into the unit). What’s the big deal? Well, since the creation of the U.S. armed forces and until that time, females were not allowed to serve in combat arms units such as the Infantry, Field Artillery, Armor, Calvary, etc.
So, how did specialist Emily Pearson and half a dozen other women end up in the three platoons that made up our battery?
They were attached.
And what is, “attachment?”
Semantics, dear Watson. Semantics.
When a soldier (male or female) is attached to any unit, they are fully responsible for performing all tasks and duties associated with that unit. So, though women at the time of my unit’s deployment to Iraq could not have the hoo-ah macho title of Field Artillery, they certainly could be attached to a Field Artillery unit and sent to war with that unit and be held accountable for participating in all tasks within that unit.
And they could die combat and non-combat related deaths with that unit as many women have in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, semantics of titles aside, we were still left with a large mass of men, who, simply by M.O.S. (military occupational service) choice, had never gotten used to being around women in a professional, military environment.
What about locker room talk and other traditional forms of male bonding which often includes foul language and stories (mostly lies) about activities with the fairer of the sexes? How could this sort of behavior continue without offending a female soldier and being brought up on charges simply for participating in speech that normally wouldn’t get a second consideration due to an all-male environment? These were our fears.
How did it all play out?
It took time, but basically, Specialist Pearson and her female counterparts cleared the air simply by suiting up, showing up, and performing all of their required tasks as successfully as the men, whether they be basic rifling skills on the ranges, effectively operating the .50 cal machine gun or .240 bravo, driving the vehicles; basically, anything and everything. They did their jobs, they did them well, and they did them as proficiently as any of the men.
The biggest mistake we made (we here being the men) during this needlessly uncomfortable transition phase, was, at times, alienating our sisters in arms. It seemed that no matter what we were talking about, when one of the females would enter the vicinity, the conversation would cease.
Emily Pearson was the soldier among us who broke this cycle.
“Guys,” she’d said after joining a few of us men who had been sitting around, cleaning our M-4’s, and small talking until she had arrived, at which time we clammed up. “I’m not going to sue you guys, or report you to the I.G. (Inspector General) for anything.”
This bold statement, out of the blue, took us off guard and we all gave her our undivided attention.
“I’m not some power skirt at the water fountain working in a bank,” she continued. “I’m a soldier. Like you. I’m going to the same place you are for the same reasons, and with the same goal of coming home to my family.”
We confided in her that we were nervous being around her and the other females, mostly because the Army, just like all private corporations, have those death by power point and video presentations about sexual harassment. You know, the ones where it is actually stated that complimenting a member of the opposite sex on their footwear can be deemed as sexual harassment in a court of law and will be deemed as such if the person claiming to be offended can afford the right attorney?
“We don’t care about the locker room talk,” Emily said. “But what hurts is how you exclude us. You make us feel like we’ve got the plague.”
We took this to heart, and over time, we began letting down our walls and letting our sisters in. They were happy to be there, and Emily’s words rang true. During the deployment, none of the females instigated any non-sense that was based upon gender. Sure, like any other unit, we had our deployment love affairs and scandals. This type of behavior doesn’t just happen in the Army (though it does only seem to make headlines when it involves people of exceptionally high rank and in political positions, like former C.I.A. Director General Petraeus, who, ironically, was in charge of Iraq while we were there), but also in the private sector, and everyone knows this. But as far as ‘little girls’ running to I.G. because you said something that hurt their feelings?
And if you were to get fresh with one of the ‘girls’ in our unit, there was a good chance she’d bust your nose or lip and threaten to do it again if YOU ran to I.G. The females in our unit, by ‘attachment,’ were not little girls.
They were soldiers.
At some point in the deployment, we started trading off positions within our truck teams. This was necessary as complacency is one of the most dangerous enemies of any soldier in a combat zone. The minute you become comfortable and start taking your safety for granted, is the minute that you get blown up by an I.E.D. or you get your top knot taken off by a sniper’s bullet.
I will NEVER forget the first time that Specialist Emily Pearson climbed into the gunner’s turret on our way through the city of Mosul. I had an awakening that day, or rather, became more aware of something I’d already realized, but not quite to such an extent.
As Emily climbed into the turret and strapped herself down tightly with the harness, to prevent her from being thrown out and crushed should our truck sustain a blast, she yelled, at the top of her lungs, “Tell me to wear a burka, bi#&*es!”
I felt my blood go cold. It was just then that I realized how big of a leap, Emily, a woman in her early twenties had taken, and not just for herself, but for her entire gender.
She had not just penetrated the ranks of the combat arms in the U.S. Army.
She had not just gone half a world away to defend her countrymen and to fight for those who did not possess the ability to fight for themselves.
She, who merely because of her gender, in Iraq, was viewed by the locals as less than human- something more in line with personal property than a living creature- had transcended centuries of male domination and ignorance to become, for this one moment in time, the most dangerous form of weapon of mass destruction radical Islamic extremists could ever know; a free, educated woman, with a .50 cal machine gun, and she was not putting up with any shi#!
No one told her to put on a burka. No one told her to cover her face. Matter of fact, as she swung her machine gun around in her ninety degree arch of security coverage, men looked the other way, and some of them ran in fear.
But the women? Burka clad as they were?
Once they made sure none of the men were watching, some of them gave her thumbs up.
I enjoyed Emily’s company that entire deployment. The conversations we had while rolling across the Arabian Desert were non-stop and spanned all subjects. Never again, after Emily had earned her way into our combat arms circle by showing that she belonged based upon the same criteria that had allowed us to construct them- the fact that she was a highly trained, skilled and capable soldier- was anyone among us uncomfortable because of her gender.
Emily had left for Iraq a married woman with a six month old daughter. I’d like to say that in some respects, deployment takes less of a toll on the ‘back home life’ of female soldiers than males, but nothing could be further from the truth. Emily suffered the same personal hardships as a result of her sacrifice for her country as many of the rest of us. Her marriage dissolved and ended during her deployment, and she had to fight for any parental rights over her child that she had before deploying once she returned. She’s had to learn to live with her ‘new normal’ and in that, she’s done well, having gained custody of her child and having met another man with whom she shares her life today as well as two more children.
Emily currently works as a corrections officer and detention officer for a juvenile detention center in Grays Harbor County, Washington. She is also finishing up her last class for an Associate Degree in health care administration and pharmaceuticals. She does all of this while being a mother of three children; ages 5, 3, and 1.
I asked Emily what her proudest military achievement was and she told me, “My proudest military achievement was being part of a deployment, because even though I was pulled away from my family I still feel like I contributed to something and was able to make a difference, even if it was small.”
Since Emily’s return from Iraq, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have signed an order that allows women to serve in combat arms M.O.S.’s. A lot of people have been ‘up in arms’ over this, but I have news for them. As it has been pointed out in this article, women were already serving in combat arms positions anyway.
And many of them have died while doing so.
What do I think of the U.S. military’s ‘new normal’ of women in combat arms? After serving in Iraq with Emily Pearson and other women I think two things. Number one- it’s about damn time.
And number two?
You’ve come a long way, soldier!
Neither Sgt. V. nor I were ever able to find the Snickers bar that had been dropped into the communications system of our truck. Several hours later, while rolling through the relative safety of Kurdistan, the autonomous region of the Kurds in Northern Iraq, and while drifting in and out of sleep, I heard alternating sounds coming through my headset of Sgt. V. snoring, and what I suspected was Specialist Pearson chewing what could have been a Snickers bar. To this day, Specialist Pearson will neither confirm nor deny any knowledge of the location, or status of the Snickers bar.
*Kevin E Lake is an Iraq War Veteran and an author. His books are available on Amazon.com at: http://www.amazon.com/Kevin-E-Lake/e/B00352K6O0/
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