Pfc. Christen Rowland was only 18 when she decided to join the National Guard. Like many other people attracted to the military, Rowland knew she wanted to do something positive but wasn’t sure exactly where ti turn. Rowland said she found what she was looking for in the guard.
“At first I was really nervous, but now I know it was the right decision,” Rowland, now age 20, said.
As the United States continues to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, more women of all races, ages and creeds—daughters, wives, sisters and mothers—are vying for the chance to serve their country. Female soldiers have conducted air missions, kicked down doors, disarmed mines and shed their own blood. In more than five years of fighting, 105 women have been killed in Iraq, according to a report issued by the Pentagon.
Women make up about 20 percent of the military, the U.S. Census reported. Under Defende Department rules, women can pilot Blackhawk helicopters and serve in the military police. They can engage in direct combat but they are still not assigned to combat infantry companies.
1st Sgt. Yvette Shiu, who enlisted in the Army at 18, said there are two reasons women join the military—securing money for college through the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunity to leave dysfunctional homes and make better lives for themselves.
“I’ve talked to a lot of other women in the military and money for college is one reason, but a lot of the women say it’s because they are looking for a way to get out,” Shiu said. “They want to get away from the [bull] from home or the [bull] from the streets.”
Shiu, who grew up in Chicago, said her reasons for joining the military were similar.
“I joined for two reasons,” she said. “I wanted to get away from my parents and grow up without their supervision. I wanted to know if I could make it on my own. Secondly, it was like what pretty much everyone else says—I wanted to get money for college.”
Shiu used the Montgomery GI Bill to help pay for a degree in geology. She served one tour of duty in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. During her time there, she worked as an Army paramedic at a medical clinic outside of Baghdad.
Shiu now lives in Chicago. She is still a member of the National Guard and works as a geologist in her civilian job.
The Montgomery GI Bill grants about $42,200 to active-duty soldiers, in exchange for an enlistment period of at least three years in the U.S. military, according to the The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
The Montgomery GI Bill is commonly mistaken as a military benefit, According to USMilitary.com. In actuality, the GI Bill is not managed by the Department of Defense or any other branch of the U.S. military. Instead, It is actually a veteran’s benefit and is managed by the Federal Veterans Administration.
Having spent almost 20 years in the military, first as an active-duty paramedic and later as a member of the National Guard, Shiu has seen firsthand what life is like for female soldiers.
There have been many changes in how women are treated since she first joined the military in 1987, she said. In some ways, Shiu said, the changes have been a disservice to many members of the military, male and female. She said that the training for women is no longer as rigorous as it once was. This has led to the induction of women who are not trained to withstand some of the horrors of combat, she said.
“Back in the day, they were still pretty up in your face and there were no time-out cards,” she said.
But continuous allegations of sexual harassment have caused many changes.
In March, the Department of Defense released a report on sexual assault and harassment in the military. The report found that 34 percent of active-duty women said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. IN 2007, 2,688 reports of sexual assault were filed.
“Today [women in the military] are treated more sensitively,” Shiu said. “[The military] is really afraid of females crying sexual harassment.”
Shiu said she has never felt harassed during her time in the military, but partially attributes that to her naivete.
“I was young, stupid and naïve when I joined the army,” she said. “I was a total nerd, so if someone had been coming on to me, I wouldn’t have guessed it and would have just flirted back.”
Shiu said the issue of sexual harassment in the military is more complicated than it seems and blame lies in many different places.
“The military is like a giant whorehouse,” she said. “Everybody will sleep with anybody who’s anybody—whenever, wherever, however, with whomever. Married or not. It doesn’t matter. As far as people provoking each other—it goes both ways.”
Shiu said women who allege sexual harassment are often “crying wolf” and their charges are groundless. Their accusations have led to a shakeup in the military, causing division instead of unity, she said.
Despite the rigors of the job and the difficulties of serving in a predominatntly male environment, Shiu and Rowland agree: Joining the army was one of the best decisions they ever made.
“They kind of break you down,” Rowland said. “But they build you back up the way they want you to be. I am so much stronger now than I was when I left for basic [combat] training.”
Since leaving basic combat training, Rowland has enrolled in college and plans to pursue a job as a civilian paramedic. She has not yet been deployed but anticipates a future deployment to Afghanistan. Rowland is trained as an Army paramedic and will serve in that capacity if deployed.
Shiu, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, said being a member of the military has shaped her in countless ways.
“After coming home from Iraq, I learned a lot about stress and anger management,” she said. “I learned how to be a great soldier, but more importantly, I learned how to be patient, more observant, more open-minded, more understanding and how to better think things through before I pass judgment.”
Shiu also said her years in the military will reflect how she raises her newborn daughter.
“I have seen it all and tried it all, so this little girl is not going to get away with anything,” Shiu said.
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