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Pfc. De'Cassalyn Sanford, after two days manning a checkpoint south of Baghdad during the national elections.
Pfc. De'Cassalyn Sanford, after two days manning a checkpoint south of Baghdad during the national elections. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Pfc. De'Cassalyn Sanford, after two days manning a checkpoint south of Baghdad during the national elections.
Pfc. De'Cassalyn Sanford, after two days manning a checkpoint south of Baghdad during the national elections. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Pfc. Phillisha Darby, left, and Pfc. De'Cassalyn Sanford, say they're proud of having held their own during raids they've performed as members of Company F, 526th Brigade Support Battalion. Both soldiers have been nominated for the Combat Action Badge.
Pfc. Phillisha Darby, left, and Pfc. De'Cassalyn Sanford, say they're proud of having held their own during raids they've performed as members of Company F, 526th Brigade Support Battalion. Both soldiers have been nominated for the Combat Action Badge. (Anita Powell / S&S)

FORWARD OPERATING BASE STRIKER, Iraq — They’re not your average infantrymen.

To begin with, they’re not men.

But the women soldiers of Company F, 526th Brigade Support Battalion work shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts, conducting regular raids and operations in the grisly, insurgent-heavy area south of Baghdad.

Since arriving in Iraq in October, the women, whose battalion is part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky., have begun accompanying infantry soldiers on raids and missions. The intent, said company commander Capt. Alexander Garcia, is so women soldiers can perform searches on women at the scene.

But, he said, the women have seen a little more action than they bargained for — a point he mentions with pride.

“They’re doing very good,” he said. “One is being put in for a [Combat Action Badge]. She has seen more action than a male.”

Company 1st Sgt. Jimmy Dennis says the decision to send women soldiers into combat — a fairly new, and historically controversial, idea — has been embraced by women in the unit.

“Our females are one of the first ones to go in side by side with combat soldiers,” he said. “We have yet to have a female say ‘I don’t want to go. …’ This is my first unit with females. I think they’ve done an outstanding job. They’re pulling their own weight. I have them arguing about who’s going to go next.”

The Pentagon dismisses the notion that such missions contradict its stated policy of not having women in combat roles.

“All of Iraq is dangerous. But women soldiers are not utilized as front-line troops, particularly for offensive actions. We can tell the difference between sending combat troops into close combat (women soldiers did not lead assaults into Fallujah) and having troops encounter a combat situation during routine operations,” Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela L. Hart wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

“We have a lot of females who are really hard-core,” Dennis said with a smile.

Two such soldiers, Pfc. Phillisha Darby, 24, and Pfc. De’Cassalyn Sanford, 26, say they have relished their experiences.

“I think every female should get that experience,” said Darby, a former professional heavyweight boxer from South Philadelphia. “I think everybody should get a chance to get that experience.”

During her mission, she said, “They treated me like one of the guys. The first sergeant out there knew me, so he knew I could hold my own, that I was a pretty tough female.”

Both soldiers have been nominated for the Combat Action Badge, given to those who personally engage with or are engaged by the enemy during a combat operation.

“It’s not like I went out there and did anything special,” said Sanford, a native of Houston’s Fifth Ward.

Sanford said that she did find, however, that her skills came in handy on the battlefield.

“The male [soldier] who was out there helping me interview [a detained woman] wasn’t catching as many things as I was,” she said. “I guess that’s women’s instinct or something.”

The two have also had precious insight into a well-hidden corner of Iraqi society: the inner lives of its women.

“One lady said she wanted a divorce because her husband beat her,” Sanford said. “She had to marry this guy. But she was hiding this man. Eventually she said, ‘I hope you catch him and kill him.’”

Both said that their presence was initially jarring — both to Iraqis and to their fellow Americans.

“The [Iraqi] men were afraid of me,” Darby said. “The people in the village wouldn’t even look at me. They weren’t used to a woman having so much power.”

As for the women, “When I came into the room, they looked at me like I was going to get them,” she said. “I had to take off my Kevlar, let them touch my hair.”

Sanford, between fits of laughter, relayed her accidental run-in with a soldier having a private moment during a mission.

“I saw a guy out there [urinating] in the bushes, and I said, ‘Don’t forget to flush.’ And he said, ‘What the —?’ I guess he wasn’t expecting to see me out there.”

In the future, she said, she hopes her presence on the front lines will be better received.

“I am infantry,” she said. “If you were to question us females in Foxtrot Company, nine out of 10 of us would say we’re an infantry company.”

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