Combat Vets | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Combat Vets

The Source's Women of the Year

It's still not easy to be a woman in a "man's world." While many of you probably aren't thrilled by our use of that phrase, it's a simple fact that, for all women have accomplished, there are still jobs—entire industries even—that are dominated by men.

In this year's women's issue, we're taking the opportunity to salute the women who continue to push the envelope in these careers, whether on the battlefield, in the lab or on the hot, hazy front lines of wildfires.

Just like the suffragists, the riveters and the bra-burners, these women are laying down the tracks the women of tomorrow will roar down, bringing us ever closer to a world in which sexism is truly a thing of the past. They will pass on to their daughters and their daughters and their daughters the message of equality until we finally reach the time when it won't make sense for newspapers to write stories like these anymore.

On the following pages, you'll also find evidence of women right here in Bend dedicating themselves to teaching other women about their personal and collective power. It's not just the big groups like BendFilm or Shine Global doing this work, either. There are individual gals in our midst who've just decided: Enough. I can make a difference and I will.

We hope you, too, will be inspired by these wonder women and join us in giving them a rousing Ker-Pow! of support for their good work.

- The Source

It's been eight years since Kelly Garcia last got blown up by an improvised explosive device. The blast, which went off 20 feet behind her vehicle, lifted it forward off the ground, the force slamming her head into the dashboard and then whiplashing her back against the metal back wall of her Humvee.

The resulting head injury eventually led to her medical retirement from the Army National Guard when she began to experience the kind of memory loss that causes you to forget how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth.

And even though her year in Iraq included night-time raids, routinely being shot at and sitting on top of vehicles and firing giant machine guns—all this was not considered combat and Garcia was not considered a full participant in the action because of military rules that prevented women from serving in "combat."

"Officially, we were not allowed to be assigned to units, but we were able to be attacked," said the tall brunette as we sipped tea at her Redmond home last weekend. "The simple fact was—we were in combat. We have been for a long time."

Finally, just last month, the military recognized the ability of women to serve this country in combat. It's a major victory for the roughly 205,000 women in the active-duty military forces who had been barred from some 230,000 jobs since 1994, when a federal law formally declared that women were not allowed in combat.

And for their service and the continued professionalism of the women in the military in the face of such a frustrating edict, we are declaring Garcia and all women who have ever served on the front lines our women of the year. Their success in bringing greater equality to the military is a leap forward for every woman in this country and we wholeheartedly salute them.

Combine the recent women-in- combat decision with the December 2011 rollback of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the military is on a roll. But there is still work to be done.

Since moving back to Redmond in 2011, after receiving successful treatment for her short-term memory loss, Garcia has been visiting the Redmond branch of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Many of these men never served with women and she hasn't received a warm welcome when people realize she's actually a member, not a guest.

She offers a controlled and slow sigh when I ask her how it makes her feel to not be considered an equal to these male soldiers. She struggles to end her sentences as she describes it.

"To hear some of them say women don't belong in combat...," Garcia trails off. "To have a male soldier sort of scoff at your service and say OK, you really weren't in the military..." she trails off again but I get the point—it's a slap in the face.

Officially women like Garcia have been able to enlist in the military according to the same standards as men since 1979, but have never been permitted to perform all the same duties as men.

The 1994 law officially prevented them from participating in combat operations, and small units that focused on intelligence, communications and logistics, according to a publication on women in combat from the Department of Defense.

Among the reasons to bar women from these posts, according to a Department of Defense publication, was close proximity to males in small units as well as the physically demanding tasks required of warriors in many small unit and combat operations.

For Garcia, she says this was simply not an issue.

She lived in the same block of teeny little meatlocker-sized rooms as men in Iraq and didn't feel any different from the men she served alongside in any way.

"Nobody thought twice about it on the missions," Garcia said. "There was no preference. Nobody volunteering to do a job to protect a women. Some people say it's like we're gonna get those boys killed. It wasn't like that."

Garcia's primary job was to work in civil affairs, providing the general in the Kirkuk area of Iraq information about Kurdish refugees coming through the area and the local political scene, but she also assisted with transporting detainees either to prison or to release points. Sometimes she was the commander of such convoys.

Though she didn't get any guff from the men who served with her, she would sometimes have to prove herself to males just arriving to work with her unit. She told me about one officer who arrived and, unaware she was in charge, told her and another female they would need to pull their own weight on the convoy.

"What do I even say to that?" she laughed. "You know, buddy, this isn't my first rodeo. Let me tell you what you need to do because this is my convoy."

But Garcia found most men, including the man who became her husband several years after their time in Iraq, to be supportive of women in her unit. On one occasion, her future husband had told another woman she could not be the gunner on the vehicle they were traveling in. Garcia asked for permission to speak freely and gave him a piece of her mind about not trusting women with the job.

He responded: "Thanks for your opinion. She's not gunner because she's too short to reach the gun. You're gunner."

She hopes that the recent DOD change of policy will help more men adopt that same kind of attitude. She also hopes it might pave the way for better treatment of women in the military, particularly around sexual assault, which is rampant, she said.

While the military does have a long way to go toward treating women in combat and otherwise with respect in all instances, we gotta hand it to 'em—they've done a helluva job lately.

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