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September 20, 2007

Life as an American Female Soldier

Hair falling out, periods on hold, and peeing in a cup: for female soldiers, life on the front lines involves stuff men never have to think about.

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female soldiers

Women in training: Since 2002, 165,000 female U.S. soldiers have served in the Middle East.

Photo Credit: S. Olson/Getty Images

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SERGEANT STEPHANIE JAMES, 23
URBANA, IL

"THERE WERE SO MANY THINGS I COULDN'T CONTROL. LOSING CLUMPS OF HAIR WAS JUST ONE MORE THING."

I signed up for the army in June 2001, when I was 17. They were offering to pay for some of my college education. I wasn't concerned about the possibility of going to war; I just kept thinking, This is going to be cool.

Two years later, I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and I got a phone call from my platoon sergeant, who said, "Your unit has been put on alert." That evening, I went to see The Vagina Monologues at a local theater with friends from my dorm. I didn't say anything about the phone call. On November 11, Veterans Day, I was told I was being deployed. I quit my part-time job at David's Bridal shop and boxed up the clothes in my dorm.

In February, I went to a base in Kuwait, where you had to wait in long lines no matter where you were: in the mess hall, bathroom, shower. You were never alone. At night, I put on headphones and played Norah Jones to block it all out.

One of the most important things I brought from home was a photograph of me and my mom. I'm 1 or 2 years old in the picture, and I'm wearing overalls and a red shirt. My mom is holding me, and she's wearing a beaded necklace. When I was feeling homesick, I'd look at the picture. I also had a bright-orange University of Illinois T-shirt that I slept in at night. As soon as I got to Kuwait, I regretted not packing my flatiron. My hair gets so frizzy when it's hot outside — and over there, it was always hot. I finally had my mom mail me one.


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