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.

army women
(Image credit: S. Olson)




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.

Female soldier

(Image credit: Alessandra Petlin)

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.

female soldier

(Image credit: Alessandra Petlin)




I joined the army when I was in high school. I'd been the girl who didn't fit into any cliques. I wanted to travel, and I liked the idea of not having to choose an outfit every day. I was never into getting prettied up and trying to impress the boys.

In the army, it's hard to tell male from female when you're wearing a helmet and combat boots, an M16 swung across your back, and a gas mask on your hip. Underneath, some girls still go for Victoria's Secret — I'd see all their pretty pink and blue bras on the lines behind our tent when I'd hang my laundry out.

Shortly after I got to Kuwait, a master sergeant asked if I'd join him to pick up some civilians at the airport. He was a well-respected man — married, with five daughters.

At the airport, we got dinner from Burger King. Usually, my meals were standard military fare. Breakfast was mush-in-a-pot — the military claimed it was a mix of grits, hash browns, and eggs. Over dinner, the sergeant started telling me how he'd put my computer near his in the office so he could work closer to me. Later, as we were driving back to the base, he leaned over toward me and started to undo my seat belt. I was scared.

"You're driving," I said. "You're going to kill us."

He stopped the car. It was midnight. I had no idea where we were, and getting out of the car was as scary as staying in it. At some point, he placed my hand on his penis. I just looked out the window. You tell yourself, "It's fine," so nothing worse happens.

When we got back to the base, he said, "Well, maybe not tonight. Maybe later." He meant he wasn't through with me.

I went straight to a brigade command sergeant major and told him about the incident. The next day, my commander prepared papers for a Serious Incident Report. I spent hours talking with an investigator about what had happened. I felt the army wasn't going to help me — that they'd change the story to focus on it being my fault.

Eventually, I went to Iraq. My favorite part was helping to rebuild a local zoo. After the war broke out, the animals escaped. We found the lions and bears; they'd survived. The giraffes were lying half-eaten by the road.

The Iraqis helped paint the buildings and bring life back to the zoo. I really liked them. I remember one security guard who was completely in love with me.

He said, "Will you be my third wife?"

"Your third wife?" I asked.

"My other two wives look like monkeys," he said. "But you're beautiful." That made me laugh.

There were lots of reminders that you weren't just a soldier — you were a female soldier. When you were on a convoy, you couldn't say, "Please stop, I have to go to the bathroom." You just had to hold it. Once, a female second lieutenant asked if anybody had a cup. Two guys in the vehicle held up a poncho to give her privacy. She peed in the cup, then threw it out a window. In Kuwait, we didn't have showers — we just cleaned ourselves with baby wipes. That lasted four or five months.

We had three identical uniforms we rotated through. When it was too hot and we'd take off our jackets and wear just our T-shirts, the sexual remarks were endless. You'd hear, "Oh, my God, she's got boobs." I'd just go in my office and close the door.

Even if you don't sleep with anyone, people will say you've slept with the whole unit. And truthfully, a few people did. Some soldiers were dating, even though they faced disciplinary action for any form of PDA. They'd have to sneak off at night to the Porta-Potty. One couple got caught fooling around behind the Dumpster. Yeah, that's love: "Meet me in the trash!"

I was told that the guy who'd assaulted me had orders to stay away from me. But during a break at an army base in Germany, I was going up a flight of stairs when I saw him. I freaked out. I raced down the stairs, hyperventilating. Those experiences got me started drinking, smoking, and taking tons of meds. It was a low, low point.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. They brought me back to Walter Reed in Washington, DC. I spent nine days in a psychiatric ward — what a nightmare. They took away everything, including my stuffed dog, Cheetah, because he had a string around his neck. I mean, I'm going to hang myself with a two-inch string? Give me a break.

I was angry about what happened to me. I testified before the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues on Capitol Hill. On the morning of the hearing, a member of Congress came up to me in the hallway. She had looked at my testimony and was concerned about certain things I was going to say.

"Can you take this material out?" she asked.

She wanted me to cut some of the vulgarity in my statement, to pretty it up. I refused. I told her I was keeping everything or I wasn't speaking at all.

Today, I'm the manufacturing manager at a Maryland factory that makes medical components for pacemakers. A hundred people work under me, and I make $74,000 a year. I just had my third promotion in two years.

What does the rest of America know about the war? Not much. These days, even I barely follow the news from Iraq. The headlines are always negative: "Thirty-seven soldiers killed today." And you're like, "I hope it isn't another one of my friends."

Female soldier

(Image credit: Alessandra Petlin)




I was raised to take care of myself. As a little kid in Kentucky, I'd follow my dad around, learning stuff like how to repair a truck. By age 8, I could tell you every working part of an engine.

I always wanted to be a singer. My mom used to think that as soon as I turned 18, I'd head straight for Nashville. Instead, I went into the army.

When you looked out the window of my trailer in Iraq, all you could see was sand. The unit was 16 by 18 feet, divided into three small sections, each of which housed two soldiers. My roommate was female, although the trailer was coed. In my tiny area, I had a laptop and an MP3 player and all my CDs from home. I slept in a twin bed under a blue velour blanket that my husband sent me and butterfly-print sheets that I bought at the PX [Post Exchange, a store for military personnel]. At bedtime, I'd change into a pretty nightgown I brought from home. But I only wore stuff like that inside the trailer. Outside, we always had to wear our uniforms.

At night, my roommate and I would hang mosquito netting on the door and turn the music up loud — everything from Avril Lavigne to the Dirty Dancing sound track. The guys would come over, and we'd dance. It was fun. After they left, though, I slept with my back to the wall so if somebody reentered the trailer, I could protect myself. The chance of rape during wartime is high.

The first time I got hit by an improvised explosive device [IED] was at 7:30 p.m. on February 2, 2005. I was driving a Humvee near the base. The force of the blast picked up the truck and knocked it over, blowing the treads off the back tires. I was more angry than scared. I was like, "We're here to help. Why are you blowing us up?"

A month later, I was in a convoy, patrolling an area called Salman Pak. We started hearing gunshots and explosions — then it was total mayhem. I felt excited, I guess. It's an adrenaline rush. People have this idea that women are fragile. That's bullshit. I saw a couple of guys who sat there looking stupid when we were under attack, and I never saw a woman do that. If someone were shooting at you, wouldn't you shoot back?

There was complete chaos, but I kept both hands on the wheel and listened to the radio to get the details of the situation. The whole time, we were getting fired on by insurgents hiding in a ditch next to the road. I put my foot on the gas, and we kept going as long as we could. Eventually, we had to bail out of the vehicle. If you stay inside, you're a target.

One of the soldiers was shot in the back. The bullet came out of his stomach. I dumped out a medical bag and pressed on his stomach to stop the bleeding. Trying to calm him down, I told him to think about the green grass back home.

From the corner of my eye, I saw six insurgents running across the field with grenades on their weapons belts.

What was I thinking while I was shooting? "Hit them before they hit you." There's no emotion involved. You just pull the trigger. There were so many bullets flying that day. There were 50 insurgents, and 27 were killed. I was awarded a Bronze Star.

Afterward, we found little pink pill packages on the bodies. They were all on something. They had left a row of seven cars — all with the trunks open — on the side of the road, with flexi-cuffs and rope inside. They had planned on taking hostages.

We captured three insurgents, and two of them were placed under my guard. I ordered them to lie on the ground and kept my 9-millimeter pointed at their heads. One was wearing a Walt Disney T-shirt with Mickey Mouse on it. The other kept saying, "I love America!"

I spent nearly a year in Iraq. How do you go back to normal life after something like that? You can't just turn it on and off. Home looks the same, but I'm not. I'm harsher; I'll get in these moods where I go from happy-go-lucky to "get away from me." I have nightmares. I can't stand it when a balloon pops. I'm less trusting.

My husband works part-time at Wal-Mart, and I'm not working at all. After everything I've been through, I can't concentrate. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder last fall. I'm not looking to the future anymore. I look at every day and how I'm going to get through it.