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A pack weighs the same for everyone

Sergeant First Class Bettina Wordlaw served in the US Army in Iraq in 2003. She came under fire while deployed there and shot back at enemy soldiers. Women, she strongly believes, are ready to take on combat roles.

"We had to do the same things as the men - the same march, carrying the same backpacks," Sgt. 1st Class Bettina Wordlaw said about basic training in the US Army at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. The 15-kilometer, fully-equipped march was really tough, Wordlaw said, but she made it through.

Soldiers like Wordlaw have long been a common sight in the day-to-day life of the US military. That they might now be allowed to fight as combat troops is a fact that has generated fierce public debate in the United States and within the army itself.

While some rejoice that women will now have the same opportunities as men in the US Army, others are skeptical, wondering whether women can meet the call of duty - or if they will weaken the fighting strength of troop units on the ground.

For Wordlaw, such questions miss the point. If a soldier wants to become a combat troop, then, regardless of gender, that should be possible, she said. And as to whether women are inherently less aggressive, and therefore less suitable for combat?

"I don't believe that at this point," Wordlaw said. "Some women can be even more aggressive than men."

A few female colleagues prefer going with her to the training grounds and to play paintballs instead of doing clerical work in the office - where, she added, men also work.

Co-ed training

In 1987, the mother of two arrived in the United States as the wife of a US soldier. Ten years later, Wordlaw, a German citizen, also attained US citizenship. She was impressed by a military escort ceremony she then saw.

"I thought it was so amazing, the way the soldiers came in with their uniforms and their flags, and how proudly they stood there," she said, switching fluently between German and English as she recalls the event. Beyond the ceremony, though, she was also attracted to the educational opportunities the US Army offered.

Thus she joined the Army Reserve, commencing with basic training on March 8, 2001. She liked the professional routines and the fact that she was allowed to participate in everything: "Throwing grenades, shooting guns, carrying flags," she said. Nor were the physical demands the most challenging aspect of training, but rather "army English," with its specialized jargon and myriad acronyms.

Of the 35 cadets in Wordlaw's class, eight or nine were women, recalled the blond, 45-year-old. Training and eating were done together. They slept in different buildings.

After completing basic training, Wordlaw was allowed to choose an educational track. She opted for a driver's license for the large military vehicles that carry tanks. She learned how to refuel army vehicles and how to deliver dangerous materials. As a reservist she was only required for duty one weekend per month. In September 2002, however, her unit was activated and, two months later, it was deployed to Kuwait.

Shots in Iraq

A woman in desert battle dress uniform stands in front of a black helicopter. (Photo: copyright Bettina Wordlaw)

Wordlaw in front of Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq in 2003 on a day she called "My best in Iraq"

In March 2003, at the beginning of the war in Iraq, she drove - primarily at night - with her company behind the 3rd infantry division as it marched into Iraq. She could hear Baghdad as it was hit by rockets. And, she admitted, she was scared.

"I mean, before that I was a mom who took [her children] to soccer," she said. "This was something different."

But her training lent a sense of security to the mission, and she trusted her officers. Those opposed to the deployment of women as combat troops often allude to a combat danger particular to women. But did Wordlaw ever think about the fact that, were she taken prisoner, she might be raped?

She said no: "I think there's also a chance that that'll happen here, whether you're fighting or not. You can also go to Baltimore and something can happen there."

While building a bridge in Iraq she came under fire - and returned fire.

"That was pretty self-evident to me. When I'm shot at, I shoot back," she said. "I'm there to do a job, and I swore to myself that no one would run out of fuel. I fulfilled that promise."

Of the 170 soldiers in her company, about a dozen were female. They were engineers and truck drivers, all of whom were dressed in the same battle dress uniforms as the men.

Nor were there any issues between the sexes - at least not any significant issues. "It was a little complicated sometimes when we had to go to the bathroom," she said. When the long convoy had to stop somewhere amidst the flat desert landscape, the men could pee on the tires, she said. The women contorted their bodies to fit under the frame of the trucks; at other times the men did their best to ensure a sense of privacy for their female peers. "Lots of the guys held up parkas between us and then looked the other way," Wordlaw said. "They supported us and always found a solution."

One of the soldiers, a welder by profession, even built a toilet for the women, one that could be loaded on the truck and taken with them.

Satisfied and grateful

A smiling blond-haired woman in light battle dress uniform stands in front of a brown sign which says that she is in Fort Meade, Maryland (Photo: DW/Christina Bergmann)

As part of the 200th Military Police Command, Wordlaw works and lives in Maryland

Wordlaw, who was raised in Aalen, a city of 65,000 in southwest Germany, comes from a family with a long military tradition. Her two brothers served in the German military; her father made a career as a German soldier.

Just one year after Wordlaw returned from Iraq, she opted for a full-time position in the US Army. This time, however, she would not be driving trucks, but working in the personnel department. Her unit, the 200th Military Police Command, is stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, just north of Washington DC. She said she finds "joy and fulfillment" in helping other soldiers. As for discrimination or sexual harassment - both topics that appear and reappear in current debates about the women in combat roles - Wordlaw said she has experienced neither.

In fact, it's the opposite. She said she feels very grateful toward her supervisors and staff for supporting her in times of personal difficulty. A year ago her son died from a chronic illness.

Sgt. 1st Class Wrodlaw sees her future with the US Army. She thinks it's good that women will now have an easier time making a career in the army, especially since some promotions remain out of grasp when "official" combat experience is lacking.

And what does her father, a corporal in the German army who worked with NATO and was stationed in France, have to say about his daughter's profession?

"He is so proud of me," Bettina Wordlaw said, her face beaming. "Just like my mother."

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