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September 20, 2007

Life as an American Female Soldier

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In the military, they try to make things equal. Mainly, that means women are supposed to look like men. You can't wear earrings. Makeup can't be excessive. I didn't wear any, but I always carried ChapStick. Once, a friend sent me nail polish. She wrote, "There probably aren't many times you can feel like a girl. If you have some downtime, have a pedicure party." During off-hours, we watched TV. I got everyone hooked on Sex and the City.

I met another soldier, Sergeant [Ivory L.] Phipps from Chicago. He was in his 40s and had been in Desert Storm. He always had the Bible with him, reading Psalms. I felt calm when he was around.

On the evening of March 16, 2004, I arrived at a base near Baghdad. The next day, my friends and I were standing next to the laundry building at lunchtime. We had only been in Iraq about 18 hours. I saw Sergeant Phipps nearby. Then I heard the explosion. When a mortar goes off, first you hear a thunk and a second later — boom. It's basically just a shell filled with pieces of metal and random stuff. The shrapnel blows up and out, so you have to get down out of trajectory range.

Our squad leader yelled, "Get down!" and he grabbed me. I blacked out. Next thing I remember, I was sitting in the bunker. My heart was beating so fast. I could hear people outside yelling for help.

Afterward, I saw my squad leader carrying Sergeant Phipps's duty cap in his hand. It was covered in blood. I was like, "Oh, my God." Phipps passed on. In my time in Iraq, my squad lost five people.

No way around it — female soldiers deal with issues men don't even think about. I took Depo so I wouldn't have my period; I just didn't want to deal with it overseas. My hair started falling out from the stress — coming out in clumps when I'd wash it. I used to cry on the phone with my mom. She'd say, "Stephanie, do you have your arms? Your legs? Shut up about your hair." But there were so many things I couldn't control in Iraq. The hair was just one more thing.

Now I'm studying for exams and thinking about going to law school. I get money from the military for continuing my education, so I don't have to worry about finances the way a lot of my friends do. But there are things that I can't forget. When I hear a loud noise, I get this chill. You never experience that type of fear except during war, and it never leaves you.

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