NAD ALI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — At age 24, Sgt. Ruth Tiik is a battle-tested veteran of both war and politics.

Estonia’s military still has compulsory service, though only men are required to join. Tiik took the highly unusual step of joining the conscript service with her male counterparts. That was the easy part.

Though her country has no military restrictions on women in combat, Tiik had to fight against what she says is an entrenched idea that women should not fight in wars. She was encouraged to join the country’s war college and become an officer with a quiet desk job — but she declined.

“I would rather be a soldier in the infantry than a leader in the headquarters,” she said.

Then she had to grapple with the country’s defense minister, who objected to women serving in combat, even though there were no rules prohibiting it. Two weeks before she was to ship to Iraq in 2008, pressure came from him to stop her from deploying.

She fought back and won.

“Tough is an easy word,” she said, describing her battle.

With her high and tight haircut, strong build, and steely stare, Tiik certainly fits in with her comrades and she works hard to keep it that way. She said she traded her shoulder-length hair for a U.S. Marines-style haircut to deflect amorous attention.

The constant scrutiny of being one of the only women in the service can be tiresome, Tiik said.

“If you’re going out with (the) guys … you get a reputation,” she said.

Tiik is one of three Estonian women in Afghanistan, and one of just 353 women in the Estonian professional military of some 3,700 troops. Even now, she often finds herself kept on the base. But when she does go out, she often mans the machine gun atop an armored personnel carrier.

As a little girl, Tiik always enjoyed playing outdoors and getting dirty, the tomboy in a family with no sons. It was the physical challenge in particular that drew the former gymnast to the life of a military grunt.

“I learned first to climb — then to walk,” she said.

Since she joined the infantry, a trickle of Estonian women have followed her. She says she still gets letters from young women who look to her as a pioneer.

“When I went to Iraq,” she said, using an apt metaphor for her northerly homeland, “it was like I was making the first footprints in the snow for females.”

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