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What Does It Mean To Be A Woman In The U.S. Military?

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've been hearing some really astonishing voices this week that have prompted a big reaction online - women who have served on the battlefield, and on bases here at home. Women are no longer excluded from combat, but their exact role is still to be fully decided.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We've heard women talk about being shot at; about sexual assault while in uniform; about balancing obligations to their unit, with their obligations to their families. NPR's Quil Lawrence joined us to examine one, final subject - identity; that is, what is means to be a woman in what, for millennia, has been a man's world. And Quil, good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, you've been reporting all this week about women - much of it about women in combat. Remind us first, what do women and men in these situations have in common?

LAWRENCE: Well, combat changes everyone - man or women. One woman we met in the series is Sgt. Jaclyn O'Shea. She carried a heavy pack through two combat tours in Afghanistan, and is actually still in the Army. She can - literally - measure the toll it's taken.

SGT. JACLYN O'SHEA: I actually lost an inch of my height since I joined the Army. I used to be 5-8. Now, I'm 5-7. I think after the next couple of years, I'm going to want to kind of calm down. Like, you know, you get those guys that have been infantry for like, 20 years and they're just broken, broken down.

LAWRENCE: So yeah, war changes people, and it changes women in different ways than men.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about those different ways. What were the women telling you that set them apart from the men that they served with?

LAWRENCE: For men going to war, it's been about becoming a man. And for women going to war, it's also about becoming a man. That's the difference.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, in a manner of speaking, right.

LAWRENCE: I'm on thin ice here, I know. I'm a guy, and I'm talking about this stuff. But a lot of the women we spoke with, this is the sort of thing they were saying. In Afghanistan, some of them really were on the same patrols, getting shot at just like male soldiers. Sgt. O'Shea accompanied infantry and special forces teams in Afghanistan, and so did Sgt. Alyssa Corcoran. Sometimes, the way women change is really basic - like, how you look. Sgt. Corcoran showed us a picture of herself in Afghanistan. in full battle gear.

SGT. ALYSSA CORCORAN: I went from having shoulder-length hair - nice, all pretty, soft hair - to an inch long, looking like a guy. And you just don't worry about smelling good or looking pretty. You're out there to make sure you, and the people you went with, come home.

MONTAGNE: So changing your look may be considered somewhat superficial but clearly, you found deeper changes.

LAWRENCE: Sure. I mean, the ones who are still in - actually, our producer on this series, Marissa Penaloza, noticed they talk a lot like the guys in the military - or just, they talk like military people; military jargon. But if you talk to them after they're out a little bit later, they can be much more introspective. I met one former Army captain, an Iraq vet, Julie Zavage(ph). She went to West Point, and it really shaped her.

JULIE ZAVAGE: I joined that hyper-masculine organization when I was 17. And I think that I probably have more feminine characteristics, and I think that it taught me really, really well to just, like, sink those. Just like, those can just go in the corner for a while. I saw them as - like, these are my flaws. This is what I need to get rid of in order to, like, be successful and to be accepted, and to be respected by my peers and subordinates, my soldiers.

MONTAGNE: So for this Iraq vet to earn the respect of other soldiers, she thought she had to hide anything that made her seem feminine.

LAWRENCE: Sure. These characteristics she felt were just what the military called weaknesses; things like discussing things, to come to a decision. Zavage went to Baqubah in Iraq in 2005, when the war was getting really bad. She ended up overseeing security at a forward operating base called Warhorse. Her job as a battle captain kept her inside the wire. But what I think's really interesting is the discussion that was going on inside her head this whole time.

ZAVAGE: I had this sort of baseline questioning about whether we should be there, and it was even in our interest; and whether we were there for the reasons that we said we were there. But my daily thought life was completely focused on keeping the base safe.

LAWRENCE: After Iraq, she eventually got out of the Army, and got a degree in horticulture. Julie Zavage is now a miller at an organic, local-grain flour mill in Skowhegan, Maine.

MONTAGNE: Rather different, it sounds like, from her experience in the Army and in combat. How hard of an adjustment was that?

LAWRENCE: She likes her job. It's more in line with her philosophy. But she has mixed feelings about the way she spent almost a decade of her life. In the military, everything's black and white. You give orders, you take orders; you don't do things that she would say are more traditionally feminine. And now, she's kind of trying to get that part of herself back.

ZAVAGE: I feel like I just did a major, major undoing when I got out of the military. And it took like, so much to even like, get a grip - sort of like, figure out myself again.

MONTAGNE: Undoing - that's a very interesting word.

LAWRENCE: Yes. This transition back to civilian life is different for everyone. One of the people we were talking about earlier, Alyssa Corcoran, who was over in Afghanistan - and there's a photo she provided, of her in full-body armor, her fingers reaching towards the trigger of an M-4 carbine. Now, she's out of the military; and we took another picture of her at home. She's wearing a pink sweatshirt; and she's even got a pink, .22-caliber rifle. You can see both of those photos at our website, NPR.org.

MONTAGNE: All right. It's pink, but she's still carrying a gun. It sounds like she hasn't really left military culture too far behind.

LAWRENCE: Yes. Our producer on this series, she noticed that these women seemed to be more anxious to get back to being women, which they sometimes define as being a mom, or a wife. But there's this paradox. Women are out there breaking down barriers, doing more than they ever have in the military. But they say to be women, they have to wait until they get out of the military. And again, part of it is about appearances. Alyssa Corcoran, the one with the pink rifle, she was in dozens of firefights in Afghanistan. And she talked about very simple things she enjoyed again, like not wearing fatigues.

CORCORAN: I have all these clothes that - you know, for the last four years I didn't really get to wear except for on the weekends. And I'm just like, hmm, what am I going to wear today? Um - I think I'm going to wear a skirt; that'd be really cool. I get to be a girl again. I actually like it now.

MONTAGNE: And Quil, what is Alyssa Corcoran doing now that she is out of the Army?

LAWRENCE: She's going to college in Florida. She's a little nervous about her transition. She's going to be a lot older than the other students. She's married. At the same time, combat can make pretty much any other challenge seem small.

CORCORAN: It makes me feel like now that I've done an infantry job, I think I can accomplish anything in the world.

LAWRENCE: But the question - for women, especially - is whether anyone back here in the civilian world is going to give her the credit; is going to believe that she did a combat job. And that's what Sgt. Jaclyn O'Shea is thinking about. She's the soldier who came back an inch shorter, after two combat tours in Afghanistan. Well, she's still in the Army.

O'SHEA: I haven't got out yet, so - to be honest with you, I am a little nervous because nobody's going to take me seriously. 'Cause - oh, you're not combat arms. That's if I do get out.

MONTAGNE: So what she's saying, Quil, is that because she's a woman, people will think she couldn't have been in real combat?

LAWRENCE: Yes. Men have, for a long time, defined what a vet is. Military culture, for them, crosses over. They come back, they look the same; they keep the same haircut, the same boots. Being a woman combat vet is new. And we're still figuring out what that looks like.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Quil Lawrence. And you can hear his entire series on our website. And Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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