Natalie Ruske and Bandit, at left, and Anja Mersmann and Cortazar, all from the Mannheim police, spend time with some girls at Friday's Women's Equality Day celebration at Ben Franklin Village.

Natalie Ruske and Bandit, at left, and Anja Mersmann and Cortazar, all from the Mannheim police, spend time with some girls at Friday's Women's Equality Day celebration at Ben Franklin Village. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

MANNHEIM, Germany — Strong men and brave women cried equally Friday during a military celebration of women’s struggles for equal rights that turned into a remembrance of the sacrifice of scores of American women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Excuse me just a little bit,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Shelley, choking up at the podium after watching a somber slide show of the nearly 60 women — most of them military, enlisted and young — killed far from home in roadside bombings, suicide bombings and helicopter crashes in the past few years.

Shelley, wearing Class A’s and a buzz cut, a former command sergeant major for the 18th Military Police Brigade, was determined to regain his composure to introduce the guest speaker he’d brought to Mannheim to mark Women’s Equality Day. The day was ordained in 1971 to mark the date in 1920 that the 19th Amendment provided American women voting rights.

The speaker was Staff Sgt. Jennifer Fulkerson, a former math teacher and now a Kentucky National Guard recruiter. Among a batch of honors from her year in Iraq as an MP, Fulkerson earned a Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal with Valor and — twice — a Bronze Star Medal.

“It’s pretty easy to show valor … when you go to war and everything goes well,” Shelley said at the event at the Top Hat Club at Benjamin Franklin Village. “But I’m going to talk about four days that really sucked.”

In those four days, Shelley said, Fulkerson and her squad of 10 MPs were hit repeatedly, day after day, with roadside bomb after roadside bomb. In one instance, two of her soldiers were wounded and one was killed.

“Fulkerson did what sergeants always do,” Shelley said, choking up again, “and she takes the squad out again.”

By the end of those four days, Shelley said, two soldiers were dead and six wounded, two of them critically — from a squad of 10 — but Fulkerson never failed in her duties to save the wounded, see to her troops and rally them to go out again.

Fulkerson, 33, took the podium — decorated with a World War II-era Rosie the Riveter poster — and started to talk about women’s rights, in the U.S. and in Arab cultures such as that in Iraq. She reminded the audience that the first American woman to serve in combat did so during the Revolutionary War — when her husband was killed and she had to take over his cannon — but that women were not authorized to serve in the U.S. military until 1948 and are still officially barred from direct combat positions in modern wars in which combat comes to them equally.

She said that although her mission in Iraq was to try to keep the roads safe, she and her soldiers tried to also do “one good deed each day” for the needy Iraqis they saw.

But it wasn’t easy after what they went through, she said.

“It made it hard for us to see the bigger picture,” she said, starting to cry as she remembered her soldiers’ deaths. “We look back and have to understand that they gave their lives for a greater cause. …”

The event, put on by the 18th MP Brigade, had its lighter moments outside the club. There were two German police officers — both women — mounted on their friendly horses, both males.

“We have only boys,” said officer Anja Mersmann, explaining that mares tend to be stubborn.

The 529th MP Company was demonstrating the skills of its dogs, using female MPs and dogs of both sexes.

“We call it controlled aggression,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Gronli as one of the dogs, Sabor, attacked Sgt. Tracy Ast on command. “We let guys get bit, we let women get bit,” he said. “We don’t care.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now