Serving Their Country: Military women assume a variety of roles

Women may still be a small minority in the military, but their numbers and responsibilities are growing. They are routinely deployed overseas, including hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the nation’s attention riveted on the precarious situation in Iraq, we asked five military women to share their stories with us. Each had her reasons for joining, and each has a different role to play in the huge military family, but all five are women of courage who are serving their country to the best of their abilities.

The Doctor

One of the first things Major Sheri DeMartelaere did upon returning from the Middle East was to take a long hot shower, all by herself.

Just being alone in her bathroom was a luxury the Army ophthalmologist could only dream of during her eight-month deployment in Kuwait. Stationed on a makeshift base near the Iraqi border, the petite physician had learned to live a no-frills life. Privacy was nonexistent. She slept in a tent with 17 other women, ate and showered with others and exercised in plain view of her colleagues.

Happy as she was to be back home, however, it took DeMartelaere a while to get readjusted to American life.

“I was so surprised that I actually experienced something like a reverse culture shock, but I did,” she says. “Things are so basic over there: safety, food, patients! Things move slowly, and everything is kind of brown. Back here, everything moves so fast. Things are so colorful, loud and vibrant. You feel like you don’t want to go anywhere. It took me three months to feel comfortable again. You also feel guilty for leaving your team back there.”

We are sitting in her office at the Brooke Army Medical Center, where she is the director of comprehensive ophthalmology and clinical operations. It’s a sunny day in late March, and everything around us does indeed look colorful and dynamic. She came back earlier than her colleagues, she explains, because she was due to start a fellowship in oculoplastic and reconstructive surgery. In fact, this was a career move she was just about to embark upon when she got the call to go oversees. It’s a moment she remembers well.

“I kind of knew it was coming, but I was in denial,” she says. “This was to be my first deployment. Later, while we waited to catch the plane, everyone was still upbeat. We didn’t think we would be there that long, but it turned out longer than we thought.”

When that plane landed in the desert, her world changed abruptly. The new arrivals were handed gas masks and rushed into a bunker. A missile alert was in effect. She remembers a moment of disorienting bewilderment, thinking, “What am I doing here, in this bunker?” Three days later, she was operating on her first patient.

“They didn’t have a tent set up for us yet. We were there operating in the middle of the night in the sand,” she recalls. “The soldier had a shrapnel injury with a piece of metal in his eye. We closed his eye and made it watertight to prevent infection. He was then shipped to Germany for further treatment.”

Operating conditions eventually improved, and her life settled into a wartime up-and-down cycle. On some days, 30 to 80 soldiers would be brought in at the same time, and the eye doctors would operate nonstop for 36 hours. As with that first patient, the goal was to stabilize the situation and have the patients flown out as quickly as possible.

On calmer days, she would deal with more routine matters such as scratches or sand in the eyes.

The doctor occasionally treated wounded civilians, as well, including an Iraqi girl whose family got caught in the crossfire between shooting combatants. Although DeMartelaere couldn’t save the child’s eye, she freed her from pain. Now a photo of the doctor and her smiling young patient stands on a file cabinet in her office, together with other pictures from the base. Altogether, her team of three ophthalmologists treated thousands of patients, performing at least 100 surgeries to save the patients’ eyesight.

Born and reared in Minnesota, DeMartelaere admits that she joined the military because the Army gave her a scholarship to attend medical school. In 1993, she graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School and married Joseph Leon III, whom she had met at a Minnesota Twins’ game. He is now an infantry reservist, re-activated for two years at Fort Sam Houston.

Focused on her career, the young physician went on to an internship in Hawaii, a residency at the University of Colorado and later practice, academic appointments and research. Although she wore a uniform, her life wasn’t all that different from that of a civilian colleague. She never gave much thought to war or of being in danger.

Until that first night in the bunker! It was impossible not to be anxious cooped up in there, while sirens were going off. But when your morale sags, your comrades are always there to pick you up, she says. The Army is like a family; you never feel alone. You are always surrounded by people who are trying to do their very best for you.

This caring extends to the families left behind in the United States. For instance, her boss and her “team” took care of her husband when he fell ill during her deployment. They even brought him dinner, she says.

At 37, DeMartelaere is looking forward to the next stage of her career and possibly to adopting a child once her subspecialty fellowship is over. Although she is not exactly eager to go to a war zone again, she looks back at her Mideast service with satisfaction.

“I was there for the right reason. I was helping these wounded soldiers,” she says. “When people thank me for my service, I feel strange. I was just doing my job. As an individual, you don’t have a sense of the bigger picture. I am just doing my best for these young kids who are really sacrificing.”

The WMD Specialist

A big part of Sgt. Alexandria Mayfield’s job is to be suspicious. As a weapons-of-mass-destruction specialist, the 34-year-old Army NCO has been trained to observe her surroundings with a critical eye, looking for anything that could contain harmful contaminants.

Because of her expertise, she was among the first to be sent to Iraq last spring with the 79th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion. Her job was to instruct American soldiers on how to protect and decontaminate themselves and their equipment in case of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack.

“We were aware of a possibility of WMDs out there,” says Mayfield, who returned home in March after 12 months in Baghdad. “Harmful agents can hide anywhere. Water drops on a sunny day could be an indicator of trouble, or, say, syrupy ‘Coke’ spilled on a bench. It’s enough to make me think, ‘Wait a minute, there may be something wrong here.'”

From their base in Baghdad, Mayfield and her team traveled throughout the country to visit the seven companies under their supervision. Roads were perilous at all times. Coalition vehicles were frequently hit by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and a number of soldiers from her battalion were hit and hurt pretty badly, she says. Although she was never harmed, she witnessed several incidents of exploding IEDs.

For the uninitiated, an IED is not necessarily a conventional bomb, but any kind of explosive contraption which may or may not contain WMD material. Although Mayfield was not the one who “rendered safe” the devices, her duties included collecting and describing the gadgets so that troops would recognize them if they saw them.

Life on base was hardly less tense. With daily threat alerts and frequent gunfights erupting near and far, fear is the natural initial reaction, explains Mayfield. But soon you fall back on your training and just do what you have to do. “You refocus your mind and do your part,” she says matter-of-factly. “Some people didn’t react well to the stress, but others surprised you.”

Just talking to her, one gets the feeling that she was among the latter. Although we are sitting on the porch of a graceful old building at Fort Sam, with a spring breeze caressing our faces, it’s easy to visualize the sergeant in a war zone, alert and efficient.

Now a married woman and the mother of two youngsters ages 9 and 11, Mayfield joined the Army right out of high school to escape from the small town of Tucumcari in New Mexico.

“Basically, I didn’t want to go to college, so it was either go to work at McDonald’s or go into the military,” she says. “But I also didn’t want to stay in my hometown, so the military was a way out for me.”

She has never regretted her decision. “I enjoy the work, I enjoy the people, and I enjoy what the Army stands for.” She ponders that for a few seconds, then adds, “It stands for freedom, really!”

When Mayfield and her husband, Stan – also a military man at the time of their marriage – had to decide who would leave the service to stay with the kids in case of deployment, it was he who opted out. She loved the military too much to quit. Iraqi officials may have had a hard time relating to her as a soldier – some even refused to address her – but Mayfield has never experienced gender discrimination at Fort Sam or anywhere else in the U.S. Army.

Still, it was difficult to be away from her children for so long. Kids change so much in a few months that there was a sense of estrangement between mother and offspring when they were reunited.Someday, the sergeant would like to work in an air-conditioned environment as a dental hygienist or a pharmacy technician and have more time for her family. But for now she is staying the course.

“I believe every person, man or woman, should do some type of military service,” she says sincerely. “You grow and mature to a different level. It creates a foundation for you, makes you a stronger person.”

The Cop

Senior Airman Jessica Gibson may look like central casting’s idea of a military woman, but don’t let appearances fool you. She is for real. As part of the Randolph Air Force Base security force, she checks visitors’ passes at the gate and patrols the vast grounds, surveying streets and buildings.

On this particular day, things seem pretty routine. She stops to check an open door on a housing unit, but otherwise just drives around slowly, looking. Around her waist is a heavy belt containing a gun, extra ammunition, radio, pepper spray and handcuffs. It’s not always quiet she says – a civilian on drugs crashed the gate once; there are DWI cases, shoplifting, fights, domestic violence. It’s her duty to respond and make arrests, if necessary.

“I have always wanted to be a cop,” says Gibson, who hails from California. “I grew up in the projects in East L.A., and that’s not a nice place. There is a lot of crime. I always wanted to be able to do something about it. When I get out of the Air Force, I would like to be a cop there or some place like that. I like the danger. That’s the exciting part of the job, but I also like helping people.”

She joined the Air Force at 19 and found basic training “quite an experience.” Boot camp is about “molding you,” she explains. “It’s not meant to push you down. It’s to push you to the limits you can achieve and maybe beyond.”

Shortly after completing both basic and security training, Gibson was sent to a base in the tiny Persian Gulf country of Qatar, where she was assigned to the 379th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. While terrorist attacks were a possibility, life on base was reasonably relaxed since Qatar was a peaceful country. On their days off, airmen were permitted to visit the capital and go to the beach. It was also in Qatar that Gibson met her fiancé, Steve Clegg, from the British Royal Air Force. She later visited him in Manchester, and he proposed to her in the castle at Loch Ness.

“It was really great,” she admits with the girlish excitement that befits her 21 years. (The two will probably be married by the time you read this.)

Gibson’s commitment to the Air Force is for six years, and she doesn’t know yet whether she will recommit after that. As an enlisted person, she is entitled to free base housing but because of shortages, she had to get a residence in the city with financial help from the AF. Despite the no-nonsense uniform she wears on duty, she likes to feel feminine by wearing a bit of makeup and discreet jewelry “within regulations.” Off duty, she wears her hair down all the time.

Asked whether her high school friends and relatives are curious about her military life, Gibson says her cousins want to know everything about the weapons she handles. They want to know when she carries her gun or if she ever shot anyone.

“Not so far,” she says, “but I am sure I’ll be able to handle it if I have to.”

The Public Affairs Officer

Like other large organizations, the Air Force has a story to tell, and Capt. Jill Whitesell is delighted to be the one to tell it. As a public affairs officer for the Air Education and Training Command based at Randolph AFB, she is convinced that she has the best job there is.

“I don’t believe my job would be as rewarding in the civilian world,” says Whitesell, a vivacious brunette, who became an officer through a college ROTC program. “For us, it’s rewarding to tell Americans what the Air Force is doing and to build morale within our ranks.The Air Force has such an incredible mission and capabilities. It’s the best in the world, and it’s easy to tell people about it because you really believe it’s the best. It’s not like you are spinning something.”

Her duties cover a broad range of assignments, from helping AETC commander Gen. Donald Cook to organize special events, to dealing with the media and coordinating military participation during Fiesta. She meets many powerful and interesting people and has the opportunity “to learn everything that everybody else in the Air Force does.” Working at headquarters also brings a few perks, not the least of which is regular work hours. That’s important for a mother of a young daughter, with another baby on the way.

Still, she was eager to spread her wings beyond San Antonio. Last year the captain spent several months in the Middle East, first at a secret location in a country that didn’t want it known that it supported the Americans, and later in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. When she arrived at the secret camp, the commander asked if she could drive the bus because he saw no use for her PR skills.

“But we still had a story to tell,” she says. “There were 2,500 people there executing their mission, and it was important to tell their story and tell them what was going on. They had no radios or TVs so people were out of touch with U.S. news. We did a weekly newsletter, and we worked with various bases in the United States to get messages from the families. In the end, the commander recognized our usefulness.”

While in Kirkuk, Whitesell did double duty as the public affairs officer for both the Air Force and the Army, acting as press secretary for the city’s mayor to boot. The Iraqis wanted to take a picture with her because for them she was a curiosity as an American military woman. Just how different the local culture was in regard to women was brought home to her on an occasion when she and two other American women were invited to dinner at a translator’s house. The three of them dined with the men while the females of the family ate in a separate room.

The captain was in Iraq before the recent wave of hostilities and remembers primarily the friendliness of the population that seemed grateful for what the Americans were doing to restore their society.

Given the worldwide controversy over the invasion, however, did she ever question the political context of the American presence in Iraq?

She seems a bit taken aback by the question, but only for a minute.

“Our job is to carry out the orders of the commander in chief. When he says ‘go,’ you go. There may be people who disagree, but they don’t bring it up. I have never had a conversation with someone who disagrees with our presence there. There isn’t much socializing time (when you are deployed).”

The Navy Reservist
Navy reservist Grace Martinez had a very personal reason to enlist in the military. She did it for the sake of her sons.

“I really wanted my sons to join. Since there was no male role model in the family for them, I joined,” says the native San Antonian and single mother of three young adults. “I needed to set an example. If I can do it, they can do it. I wanted a better life for them, and I knew that the military could give them that.”

So, at the relatively advanced age of 36, Martinez made her move, getting sworn in a day before her 37th birthday, the cut-off age. Soon after, her older son Peter, who is now 24, graduated from high school and joined the Navy. Then his brother Raymond, 20, followed suit by becoming a Marine. Today, handsome photos of the two young men in uniform look down from the wall in their mother’s living room. There is also a picture of Mom, looking just as cool in her Navy duds. Only daughter Ida chose a different career.

As a child, Martinez had been impressed by the looks of Kelly Air Force Base, where her adoptive father worked. “Every pay day I would go with him,” she recalls, “and I would see all these nice uniforms, vehicles, manicured lawns … It looked like a well organized life. I just thought this was a way of life I wanted to have.”

But getting there was not easy. She grew up on the South Side, married at 16 and had three kids by the time she was 23. Then came divorce, welfare and minimum-wage jobs. “I was on my way to becoming a statistic,” she says. But at 33, she enrolled in San Antonio College and earned an associate degree in liberal arts, eventually getting a job in the statistics office of the Metropolitan Health Department, where she still works.

As a reservist, Martinez, 43, must devote one weekend a month to military training, plus two weeks in the summer. Although she is a yeoman – an administrative assistant in civilian parlance – the job description can change, depending on the situation. After 9-11, for instance, she found herself in Japan, where she received extra weapon training so she could be assigned to base security.

“I learned how to shoot a 9mm pistol and the M-16 rifle,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘I am a mother and grandmother, a secretary – what am I doing here with these guns?’ But I learned to handle them.”

On the whole, she remembers her stay in Japan with fondness. There was time to climb Mount Fuji and visit Tokyo and Hiroshima, and she liked the polite Japanese people who “take pride in their work.” It was also in Japan that she met her current boyfriend, Michael Key, himself a military man. Other assignments have taken her to Naples, Italy; Portugal; Spain, Honolulu and most recently Bahrain. Discovering that the world is “bigger than your block” was inspirational for a woman who had never left San Antonio until she went to boot camp.

As a mother, Martinez worries more about her sons’ safety than her own, but at the same time, she is enormously proud of them.

“I would rather be the one to be killed,” she says. “But all I can do is pray for them. Can you imagine where we would be today if other mothers in the past had not sacrificed their sons? We wouldn’t be here.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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