EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — They are America's new breed of warriors, preparing jet fighters for bombing runs on Iraq, hauling ammunition to the front, guarding gates to military installations. They carry themselves with pride and their weapons with authority.
Never before in a major U.S. war have women been so close to the front lines or played such a varied role in warfare. Although prohibited from serving on attack planes, warships and in ground combat units, women are performing most of the same tasks as their male counterparts. And by all accounts they are performing them well, having experienced only minor problems as the military services integrated sexually.
Tescha Shipp, 21, of Dallas, Ga., and her brother Jason joined the Marine Corps about a year ago and went through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., together. Today, she is one of 130 women Marines at a logistics outpost within artillery range of the Kuwaiti border, working as a "wire dog," climbing telephone poles in a communications outfit.
"I'm here in the desert with a rifle on my shoulder and Jason is at Camp Pendleton in California playing with a computer," she said with a laugh. "Jason wishes it was him over here instead of me, but I'm glad it's me."
Of the more than 475,000 Americans in the Persian Gulf region, about 27,000, or 6%, are women. Worldwide, women make up about 11% of the 2-million-member U.S. armed forces.
The role of women in the military has been expanding steadily since Vietnam, reflecting their growing numbers in the ranks. During the U.S. invasion of Panama in December, 1989, American women for the first time fought alongside men, serving as Air Force pilots and in helicopter crews that airlifted troops and supplies into Panama.
In Saudi Arabia, women live in the same conditions as men, wearing flak jackets and helmets, sleeping in primitive desert encampments and carrying weapons that they would use in the event of an enemy attack.
"I didn't think I was going into the combat zone," said Pfc. Amy Dever, one of Tescha Shipp's colleagues at the Marine base. "I didn't think women could go into the combat zone."
Technically they cannot, according to the Defense Department. But with the new, long-range weapons available to many nations, what constitutes the front is blurred in modern warfare. Virtually every American soldier and Marine in the theater is within striking distance of Iraq's Scud missiles.
"I don't think I have any more fears than the guys have," said Jacqueline Bowling, a 29-year-old Marine from Nice, Calif. "I think we have the same feelings."
Her husband is a Marine assigned to a nearby post, and she said he was surprised to learn how far forward she is stationed. "I guess that's where the male ego kicks in," she said.
Women's rights organizations remain concerned that, despite their growing participation, women will be held back from promotions and prestige assignments. The National Organization for Women issued a statement this week opposing the war--but demanding that women be given equal footing in combat.
A national survey last February showed seven in 10 Americans supported allowing women to join combat units if they wanted.
Another indicator that the waging of war is no longer the exclusive domain of males is reflected in the press corps. About 10% of the 700 or so journalists in Saudi Arabia are women.
"People are going to test you anywhere you go," said Air Force Capt. Lisa Christian, 30, of East Lansing, Mich., an operations officer with the 1st Security Police Squadron. She says it is a matter of "proving yourself, so that you know what you are talking about. . . . Then there is no problem. They will follow a good leader. That goes for men and women."
Christian said she has encountered few problems in the sexual integration. Except for the outdoor latrines marked "Women," in fact, visitors to desert camps would be no more apt to note the presence of women than they would that of men. The two blend together, and female soldiers no longer even draw a second glance from Saudi men.
Back in what soldiers call "the real world," Air Force Tech. Sgt. Deborah Knight, 26, a reservist, is an administrative assistant to the vice president of an insurance company in Charleston, S.C. Her husband is a tire salesman, who is now caring for their 4-year-old son.
"Sure I'm scared, scared of what's going on here," she said after being awakened by a Scud missile alert one recent night and waiting it out under her bunk, wearing a gas mask and chemical warfare suit.
She said she has encountered no wisecracks or harassment because she is a woman. "I don't experience it," she said. "I belong to a unit with 133 people. We stick together. We're like family. The men look out for us. I'm treated pretty fairly. When I'm not, I let them know. You don't want somebody to walk over you. Everybody's pretty good about treating the women right."
But another Air Force woman, Staff Sgt. Lauren Long, 27, of Sandusky, Ohio, says she has received her share of wolf-whistles and sexual wisecracks.
"You find it so offensive," said Long, a vehicle dispatcher, "but they have gotten a lot better now that the war has kicked off. . . . I let them know when it goes too far.
"I believe that if women were allowed to go on the front lines, they would do just as well as anybody. If women were allowed to be fighter pilots, we would be the best fighter pilots around.
This story was partially compiled from pool reports reviewed by military censors.