- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Capt. Yolanda Lee, a stoic D.C. native stationed at the D.C. Armory with the National Guard, is not easily given to tears. In fact, this 32-year-old officer had sworn a subordinate to secrecy after she uncharacteristically broke down with emotion after losing “one of my soldiers” during a roadside bombing in Iraq.

Dressed in an “Army” T-shirt and exercise shorts, Capt. Lee reached for a box of blue tissues Friday as she explained what she endured to receive a Bronze Star for her cool-headed command of the chaotic ambush scene near Takrit, Iraq, during which Sgt. Manny Hornedo was decapitated and others were either trapped in the fire or lay wounded.

“Unlike back in the old days, now women are directly involved in the fight,” said Capt. Lee, who has witnessed the transition firsthand. “Don’t think because you’re a woman that you won’t be exposed to everything. I wouldn’t say that the Army or Marines is for everybody.”

Spc. Stephanie Wade, 29, who spent a year conducting orientation, training and monitoring sessions — sometimes with Iraqi civilians — agreed.

“One team, one fight,” Spc. Wade said, a phrase she repeated often during our conversation. “Beside every man [in combat] there is a woman.”

These soldiers, along with Cmdr. Carol Holland and Capt. Gladys Lanier, a chaplain, were honored last week at a forum, “D.C. Women Soldiers Offer First-Hand Accounts from Combat Zone Experience,” hosted by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton as a belated celebration of Women’s History Month.

Although a strong opponent of the six-year war, Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, calls herself “a champion of the volunteer soldiers on whom the country depends.”

Yesterday, Mrs. Norton said she organized the forum because “I thought it was time to focus on the women who have served in combat in Iraq to get a sense of the sacrifice our troops are truly making.”

“Women serve different roles at home at times but not in Iraq. … It’s not like movies where men were in the foxholes,” she said. The latest figures she presented indicate that 160,000 women have served in combat in Iraq — and more than 90 have died, according to the Center for Military Readiness.

“They explode the myth that women cannot be in combat because they have been, and they have been shot at and [they have] shot back,” Mrs. Norton said.

Upon entering the cavernous D.C. Armory, next to RFK Stadium off East Capitol Street Southeast, the first thing I noticed last week was the predominant number of black, female soldiers attired in fatigues, like Spc. Wade.

“Some people underestimate women…but some of the best gunners and truck drivers are women,” Spc. Wade said.

A five-year veteran who has been with the D.C. Guard for three of those years, Spc. Wade said the hardest thing was leaving her daughters, but “If I am able to protect my house, I am able to protect my country.”

As a member of the Guard’s Drug Demand Reduction Squad, her primary duty is to talk to area students about the harmful effects of using drugs. Spc. Wade, who is fearful of allowing her daughters outside to play, said, “It’s a fight here on the streets of Maryland and D.C.” Now divorced and living in Landover, this seemingly shy and soft-spoken young woman grew up in High Point, N.C, as the youngest and only girl among 13 brothers, eight of them in the military. Her father is a retired sergeant. She got married and had two daughters after high school; however, as “the biggest tomboy who liked crawling around on the ground,” Spc. Wade always knew she wanted to join the armed forces. She beams with pride when she talks about driving 18-wheel supply trucks.

Capt. Lee graduated from Ballou High School, the University of the District of Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in the administration of justice, a program in military science from Howard University and a management program with Roy Rogers. The Army presented her with a lot of opportunities that “shaped me.” Despite “being in the line of fire,” in Iraq, when she commanded convoys from January to November 2005, “the overall experience was a blessing in disguise,” primarily in terms of her personal growth and development as a leader.

It might not sit well with some feminists, but these women noted that women are intrinsically “nurturing” and compassionate and men are intrinsically “protective,” and those complementary attributes work well in accomplishing military duties as “one cohesive unit.”

“It’s like you’re practically family now,” Capt. Lee said of the sister-brother camaraderie, similar to the one she had with Sgt. Hornedo, that develops especially in combat zones. Her primary concern, Capt. Lee said, was “to make sure my soldiers got back alive.”

“[The men] are going to protect you even when you say ‘I got this,’ but they are not going to baby you or pamper you,” said Capt. Lee, who has found herself not only the lone black officer but the lone female officer during some assignments.

To potential female recruits, Capt. Lee offers this caution about military service: “This is an equal opportunity, and you will be expected to perform like everybody else.”

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