Female troops on guard for paternalism


December 24, 1990|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEAR DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- When Maryland National Guard Spc. Bridgett Novak set out for the latrines in her desert camp late one night, a male colleague pulled his 12-inch Rambo-style knife from his sheath and insisted she take it with her.

She politely refused.

While building a defense bunker on the perimeter of the Guard's desert camp one recent morning, Specialist Novak wedged a sandbag along the roofline and packed it in tight. A buddy in her squad stepped up and placed another piece of wood on top of the sandbags to give Specialist Novak an extra bit of cover should the enemy start firing. She smiled to herself.

"I know they mean well," said the 28-year-old secretary. "But," she added, "I can take care of myself."

Here in an environment where baggy green battle fatigues make it tough to distinguish the Janes from the Johns and work details don't discriminate -- both sexes clean the latrines, both work guard duty with M-16s -- women stationed here say a certain paternalism still creeps in.

"The men in my company look out for the women," said Capt. Anthony Powell of the Towson-based 290th Military Police Company, which arrived in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago.

"But we don't cajole them. The women perform all the same missions as the men do, and they wouldn't have it any other way," he said.

For the most part, the 16 women serving with two National Guard companies here say they understand that their male colleagues may be somewhat overprotective. And to some extent, it may be expected here in a country where a woman must walk 10 steps behind a man, where she is forbidden to drive and risks arrest if she is not properly veiled.

But when word came down yesterday that the women serving here with the 400th Military Police Battalion would be banned from working in short-sleeved T-shirts, as their male counterparts are permitted to do, the comments were decidedly unladylike.

The prohibition, like similar ones issued by U.S. troop commanders, was intended to avoid offending the military's Saudi hosts.

"If I hear that slogan one more time, 'We're All Soldiers,' " groused Spc. Terri Huber, 28, of Parkville.

"And I was just telling someone yesterday that they were treating us as equal as the men," added Spc. T. Ann McElroy of Kensington. "I know I'm going to get in trouble. If I'm out there digging foxholes and sweating, I'm taking my shirt off."

Specialist Novak, whose company is trained in handling prisoners, said that differences between the physical capabilities of male and female soldiers aren't as important as simply acknowledging them.

"My squad leader asked me if I had a problem with searching a prisoner, and had I thought about the fact that I might have to shoot him," she said. "I had definitely thought about it. If it's between an Iraqi and me getting killed, I would definitely fend for myself."

But Specialist Novak, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds, said that she would not resent a decision to let a bigger male colleague search a prisoner if that were an option.

"Most of our prisoners most likely would be male, and they definitely would be able to overpower me."

In the privacy of their barracks, the women from the 290th Military Police Company talked about the realities of going from a weekend warrior -- the nickname given National Guard troops -- to a seven-day-a-week soldier.

"Thirteen women on permanent PMS," joked Specialist Huber, who works full time for the Guard assisting U.S. Customs agents at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

"You're not Laura the individual anymore. You're Specialist Clark," said Spc. Laura Clark, a Baltimore County police officer by profession.

Vanity has given way to practicality -- Specialist Clark sports a braided rat-tail at the nape of her neck, a reminder of how her thick, short-cropped brown hair once hung down her back.

And although the women say they generally get the respect they demand from their male colleagues, they do put up with an amount of sexual teasing.

When the members of the 200th Military Police Company of Salisbury sang "Happy Birthday" to Denice M. Fooks, they presented the 29-year-old guardsman with a congratulatory placard plastered with dollar bills and a Trojan condom. "Hey, Denice, that's the only balloon we could find," teased one male colleague.

Specialist Novak, who left a 4-year-old son and newlywed husband in Westminster, said such joking has been "pretty good-natured."

"It's all in how you take it," she said. "Despite being only a handful of women in a company of 100 men," Specialist Novak said, sex "really isn't on anyone's mind."

Others were less sanguine about such teasing.

Specialist Clark said soldiers were not as professional as her colleagues in the Baltimore County Police Department.

"In the police department, they are gentlemen, for the most part," she said. "But I think it's this [military] uniform. People get in this uniform and their manners go out the door. Females in the police department get more respect than in the military.

"I think it's back to the selection process. Anybody can get into the military if you're healthy."

But the women say their biggest concerns are the ones they share with all soldiers here: worrying about their families back home, wishing for a hot shower or a beer, and wondering whether there's any truth to the rumor circulating through camp that their six-month tour here may be extended.

When the 290th left Maryland in November, Towson sent them off with a parade down York Road. Specialist McElroy snatched a yellow ribbon from one of the company trucks and divided it up among her family. She also tucked a slip of the ribbon in her wallet.

"It always reminds me," the 23-year-old said, "that there's a yellow ribbon for me to go home."

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