PLAINFIELD, Ill. -- Women have served on the battlefield along men as early as the Revolutionary War. At that time, such women were known as "Molly Pitchers." The title was coined for women who brought water to cool off the cannons. Then it expanded as an emblem of those who served as spies or fought as Soldiers disguised as men.
The Army's history is rich of women's firsts. First commissioned (1950). First general officers (1970). First in command over men (1971). First Silver Star recipient (2005). First Best Warrior winner (2010). Some of the "firsts" going on today are less monumental than the ones preceding them, while others carry a heavier load. Yet all of these moments, together, form a longer narrative on the historical line of women in uniform.
It was only in 1978 that the Women's Army Corps was deactivated and women began training together with men in the same army. Today, women are integrated in ways thought impossible 40 years ago. Approximately 30,000 combat positions began opening to women in 2014, with more on the way in the next few years.
In the past, women have faced the criticism that they were either too fragile or not meant for combat. Today they're proving they are no Barbie dolls when it comes to the battlefield.
"We joined the Army to be a Soldier not to be a Barbie. I mean if we wanted to be Barbie, we'd be walking down a runway. We wouldn't be out on the battlefield shooting guns, protecting our battle buddies … We join the Army for the training, for the sacrifice to our country," said Sgt. 1st Class Donna Vance, of New Haven, Connecticut.
Vance is now a recruiter for the New York Recruiting Battalion with 17 years of service and two deployments, both to Iraq (2003 and 2008). Yet, she's noticed the raised eyebrows when others hear she deployed as a technical engineer, which is a construction job.Often, people assume engineering and construction are fields intended for men, not women, she said.
That stereotype doesn't apply to women like Vance, who worked as a main technician for the Kentucky Speedway project as a civilian. She's also worked on the Cincinnati Reds stadium and performed drill testing and land surveying for an engineering firm.
"I work in the field with men all the time, and then on my last deployment, I actually had a lot of people who were very shocked and surprised that I knew engineering stuff," said Vance.
Besides the doubts women sometimes face in performing their job, women have also embraced and overcome other challenges to serve in uniform.Some challenges are more humorous than others.
Like the time Staff St. Katherine Goodwin, now a medic with the 374th Engineer Company (Sapper), in Concord, California, brought a breast pump to a field training exercise.
She was still nursing her first child at the time but was cleared to train with her company. Whenever she plugged the pump in her tent, the surge tripped the field generator, cutting off power to all the surrounding tents. Moans and groans erupted from her camp neighbors who didn't know what was going on.
But if she hid away to other areas that were less private -- even with a warning sign posted -- a male Soldier would stumble in accidentally, which resulted in awkward apologies and embarrassment.
There's also the issue of uniforms. One ballistic vests worn in combat comes with a triangular "crotch shield" that is rather cumbersome -- even for men -- when going to the bathroom, said Staff Sgt. Nazly Confesor, an Army Reserve journalist also interviewed for this story.
Maternity uniforms are another frustration, said Vance, now recovering from giving birth after a C-section. There is a running joke in the Army that by the time female Soldiers receive their maternity uniforms, the baby has already been born.Women have also faced cultural challenges with international partners while overseas.On a deployment to Afghanistan (2011-2012), Confesor was embedded with the 25th Infantry Division for two weeks to write a series of stories. She was the only woman in the group at their combat outpost. She slept in the aid station because there wasn't anywhere else for her. They dedicated a time for her to shower with a guard at the entrance. But she doesn't begrudge those arrangements. In fact, she said she felt guilty for imposing herself.
Initially, Soldiers weren't sure whether or not she could keep up with their road marches. Their infantry uptempo. But she showed she could hang, said Confesor.
"It became a norm to be part of them. I became their sister," said Confesor, now living in Washington.
Within a few days, those Soldiers embraced her as one of their own, she said.
Also, being involved in an IED blast and a firefight didn't hurt her image, she said.
Still, it was hard to do her job as a woman in Afghanistan where cultural norms clashed with her identity. She wore shawls on missions, and tribal members wouldn't shake her hand. She understood this as a sign of cultural respect, but it was still hard to get over the refused handshakes at first. Some Afghan security force members wouldn't talk to her for interviews she needed. She placed her bun into her helmet to avoid attracting attention or become a target on patrols.
"That was my main concern," she said about the mission. "I didn't want to put myself or anyone else in danger."
Her main concern wasn't the fact she couldn't wear glossy lipstick, paint her toenails, or giggle over fashion and gossip magazines. Though, admittedly, she missed some of those things being the lone woman at times, she said.
Her focus was on the mission, not makeup.
That's true for other women as well.
"I'm not on that bandwagon, like, I'm trying to be a man, or say that I'm better than a man," said Sgt. Maj. Tanya Hudnall, who is now the equal opportunity adviser for the 4th Brigade, 95th Division (Initial Entry Training).
"But (I want) to show them that, hey, we can fill (these boots). We don't want to be men, but we are tough. Mentally. Physically."
Physically.That is the main wedge dividing men from women in uniform, today. Not just their anatomy, but their physical abilities. Men are generally stronger and faster than women. Each woman interviewed for this story admitted this. Though what they want to see is each woman have the opportunity to prove herself for the job on an individual basis. New opportunities in combat fields have been opening across the Army in recent years, whether at Ranger School or with the integration of combat units."It's not an overnight change, but change is coming," said Hudnall, who is from Milwaukee.She said she is encouraged by that change and how much the Army has already improved for women in uniform. She sees Soldiers judged not by gender, color or cultural background, but by their dedication and abilities.
Really, that's what the Army's equal opportunity program is about: providing the same opportunities for all. The uniform is intended to mask those superficial differences and allow Soldiers do the best job possible. One of the seven Army values is Selfless Service. This is more than a sacrifice of time away from family or lack of personal amenities on deployments. It's a call for Soldiers to shed their personal distinctions for the sake of a unified force. The nametapes stay, and each Soldier might wear a different sized helmet or pair of boots, but every set of ACUs reads "U.S. Army" on the left pec.