What is being a female soldier in Iraq like?

This New York Times story, headlined “In the Line of Fire,” arrived in my mailbox yesterday.

I don’t know who boldfaced the interesting passages, but I thought I’d share it with you: 

“It was her first raid of an Iraqi home, and Pvt. Safiya Boothe, 21, had no idea what to expect. Tucking herself behind a group of men from her Army unit, her soft features and wispy body hidden by full battle gear, she walked through the front door, trying to be as anonymous as possible. When no shots were fired, she exhaled.

Inside, she saw a group of Iraqi women cowering in a corner. While her male colleagues searched for weapons and questioned the men there, [her job as a female soldier was to put the women at ease and, if necessary, search them.]

She pointed to the stubby black ponytail poking from beneath her helmet and immediately, she recalled, the women’s apprehension seemed to fall away. Soon they had invited her to join them on their [multicolored floor cushions for some chai tea and were urging her to stay for dinner.

[“In their culture, dealing with male strangers is out of the question, but dealing with another woman, they drop their guard,”] the soft-spoken Private Boothe said. [“Bottom line, that’s why I’m here in Iraq, stuck in this scary situation.”]

The role of women in the military has evolved, from serving as nurses in the Civil War to serving in support units in conflicts like the Persian Gulf war, but [never before have they operated on the front lines they way they are in Iraq.] Pentagon policy prohibits women from being used in combat roles, but the [application of that rule is impractical here.] Hot spots are not necessarily predetermined; they turn up wherever an insurgent sets off a roadside bomb, whenever someone fires a rocket-propelled grenade at a unit conducting a household raid, whenever mortar rounds are shot in the direction of a military base.

Every day soldiers, including women, come under enemy fire. Private Boothe said she was once sitting on a portable toilet near her room in a dusty old Iraqi army barracks when a mortar landed outside it, sending dirt flying. She prayed that she would not die in such a humiliating way.

[Women, who constitute 15 percent of the 160,000 American troops in Iraq,] are serving in the military in greater numbers than ever, and they are being wounded and killed in greater numbers too. [Of the 2,067 members of the military who have died in Iraq as of Friday, 43 have been women.]

“Before this war, people only imagined how women would react in combat roles and thought that they couldn’t handle it,” said [Lory Manning,] a retired Navy captain who is now the director of the Women in the Military project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington. [“But for the first time women are shooting back and doing heavy lifting in a real war. The bullets are real, so are the roadside bombs and the blood. Now we see that women are bonding with the men and not going to pieces.”]

On a typical 120-degree day in August, Private Boothe sat alone and bored in her cavernous, concrete-walled room at Camp Normandy, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. For seven months this had been her home; [she is one of 8 women among 700 soldiers.]

Her hair is neatly braided into cornrows and tied at the nape of her neck. Her face is smooth and clean. [She doesn’t fuss with her looks; in this heat she has resigned herself to being just one of the boys.]

Private Boothe, an American, was raised in Jamaica and joined the Army straight out of high school for the adventure. By trade she is a machinist who makes and repairs hoses, and had she stayed with her home unit, the 203rd Forward Support Battalion, she would be working in the motor pool on a medium-sized base with many other women and lots of amenities like a state-of-the-art gym, a movie theater and a 24-hour cafe that sells the Army’s version of Frappuccinos. There are even designated bathrooms and showers for women.

[But now she is attached to the First Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment of the Third Infantry Division – an infantry unit technically off limits to women – on a base where the roads are pockmarked from mortar and rocket attacks.] Other women at Camp Normandy said that they had the option to turn down the assignment, but Private Boothe said she didn’t know she had a choice.

She said she likes interacting with Iraqi women, but can find it awkward. They often act like her mother, she said, but it’s hard to stop imagining what kinds of weapons they could be hiding beneath their baggy abayas.

The challenges women face at Camp Normandy are far from limited to warfare. Being outnumbered by almost 100 to 1, with no women-only bathrooms or showers, they have had to find creative ways to get along. Private Boothe’s female roommate made a pink-and-green wooden sign with “Female” on it, and they prop it against the shower room’s door when inside.

Most of the facilities on the base are geared toward men. In the PX, the general store, there are sporty-scented deodorants, multipacks of chewing tobacco and gigantic tubs of muscle-building powder. Panty liners are sold, but only because they are good for cleaning rifles, Private Boothe said.

Although she said her superiors try to make her feel comfortable, it’s almost impossible in such an atmosphere. “They sent me this box of maxipads when I first got here,” she said, pointing to a large carton sitting untouched in her room.

Private Boothe says the men she works with are like her big brothers, but she would rather spend time with her roommate, Pfc. Elise Yoder, talking, watching DVD’s or playing video games. The two have tried to make their concrete room cozy with rugs and wall hangings.

While other women try to blend in with the men, many husbands and boyfriends are [upset by the ratio of men to women.] Private Boothe said her fiancé, who works at a base 25 miles away, [is concerned that other men might become interested in her.]

She said she has been fending them off by saying: [“Don’t go there. I’m engaged.”] There have also been other annoyances, she said, like logging on to the base’s computers and seeing the home [page set to] Playboy.com.

As for the men on the base, Sgt. Jesse LaForest, 24, of the 1-30th’s Charlie Company, said that most thought the women were being treated like any other soldiers.

[“The only problem I have with females is if they don’t want to do something, it’s too easy for them to say, ‘Guys, can you do this for me?’ ” he said. “And some dumb guy always does.”]

Off base there is no reprieve from harassment, real or perceived. Some Iraqi men stare and whisper, or surround them, [try to touch them or ask to marry them.] Still, battle gear that hides their figures, and sometimes their faces, frequently protects them from being noticed. Many people address the female soldiers as “Mister.”

[“I know the women are in a very difficult situation, but I give them credit for toughing it out,” said ]Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier, the commander of the 1-30th. “They have a very important job here.”

But not all men are so supportive. Specialist Katherine Daronche, 21, who volunteered to serve at Camp Normandy, said she felt that she was being watched more closely by her male peers to see if she could do the job.

“One guy once said, ‘I don’t agree with you being here,’ and I told him, ‘Well, you don’t have a choice in the matter,’ ” said Specialist Daronche, who smokes cigarettes to relieve tension. “I said: ‘You’re forgetting, I’m your medic. I don’t care if you agree with me, I’m still here to save our life.’ “

She said she’s so sensitive about any perception that she’s getting special treatment. On one air-assault mission, she [trudged on rather than complain that she had sprained her ankles when she fell in the mud after jumping out of a Chinook helicopter] while wearing a 50-pound backpack and her medical aid pouch.

Over all, though, she said that she’s made friends. The men tell her about the “Dear John” letters they have received or other problems back home, she said, because she is easier to talk to than the male soldiers.

Private Boothe, however, could use a break from boy talk.

“I’m sick of hearing about cars and how you’re going to soup up your car and what you’re going to do with your truck,” she said, mocking her male counterparts. “I don’t know what’s come over me. I just want to read a good home decorating magazine or go shopping.”

Private Boothe had just returned from two weeks of leave in England, during which she shopped for more makeup and more feminine clothes than she usually wears: skimpy and frilly tops and everything from mascara to lipstick. She wanted to get it out of her system because in Iraq the closest thing she can get to feeling like a woman is wearing perfume. But that attracts bugs, like pesky sand fleas that leave marks that last for weeks. “I can’t win,” she said.

For a moment she dropped her gaze, then looked up and nodded.

“I met a female mechanic when I first got to this base, and her mood was so odd,” she said. “She didn’t show emotion. It seemed like she was numb.”

Private Boothe let out a deep sigh. “Now,” she said, “I know why.”