Women play key role in military operations overseas despite low numbers of female soldiers

It's hard to imagine Jennifer Baker in uniform. Wearing jeans and a cardigan, she bears more resemblance to a 1950s movie star than to GI Jane with her blonde hair, manicured nails and radiant smile. One would certainly never think that she had been flown into a small Afghan village to search for Taliban members in hiding. Or that she had witnessed the agony of a young child whose leg had to be amputated after he got in the way of a grenade.

Baker, 22, is one of the 17,000 female soldiers in the U.S. Army Reserve who were deployed after the September 11 attacks. She is also a student in AU's School of Public Affairs.

Only months after completing her freshman year at AU, Baker left for Afghanistan to serve for 10 months as one of the few female soldiers in Afghanistan.

Baker's desire to join the Reserve wasn't sparked by a family tradition of service, nor was she inspired by any recruitment groups who visited her Connecticut high school. Rather, she said, her motivation was boredom.

"I was so sick of high school," she said. "I wanted to do something different before I went to college."

Baker said her family was surprised by her decision to join because she had never shown any interest in joining the military during her high school years. Her younger brother had always been the one fascinated with the military, she said. But her parents knew Baker was determined to follow through with her plan and signed the forms needed to let their then-17-year-old daughter enlist.

After joining the Army Reserve in the summer of 2002, Baker spent nine months training before beginning her freshman year at AU in the fall of 2003.

By the time she started college, she said she knew it was just a matter of waiting before notice of deployment.

"When I first joined, I didn't think I'd get deployed anywhere," Baker said. "But once I started training, it became clear that it would probably happen before I was done with school."

Within five months of starting school, she was notified that the following September she would be leaving for Afghanistan.

Upon learning of her deployment, her parents were "worried, and also a little excited for me," Baker said. "But mostly worried."

When she arrived in Afghanistan, Baker said she discovered it was no place to seek female companionship. In most army units in Afghanistan, there are about five women to every 100 men.

Despite the small amount of female soldiers, women have made considerable progress in the military in the past 15 years, said Baker's boyfriend David Hunt, who also served in Afghanistan.

"There's a lot more women around than when I was active duty back in the early '90s," Hunt said, but he added that women are more likely to join the Army Reserve than the army itself. "I think that since the Reserves are playing a big part of the war effort; there's a lot more women overseas than there would be otherwise."

Though being a woman presented extra challenges in adjusting to army life, Baker distinguished herself with her creativity and sharp wit.

"She got a [drinking] coin from a two-star general for making a prototype solar cooker that could be distributed to the locals to boil their water instead of burning wood," Hunt said.

Working as a civilian affairs specialist, Baker was in constant interaction with the people in the surrounding Afghani villages.

"We had to keep civilians out of the battle space, and we were building schools and wells," she said. "We had to show them that the Army is there to help them - that we're their friends."

Baker said it's not extremely difficult to keep a good reputation among the locals, but the Army is still fighting to decrease the influence of undercover Taliban agents. She recalled one mission in which she was transported by helicopter to a mountain village where cell phone signals had been detected.

"Cell phones aren't really common there, so that's usually a sign of Taliban activity," she said.

In that instance, being female was an advantage, as the mission only required a small group of soldiers. Had she been male, she probably wouldn't have been able to go along.

"They needed a female to search the women in the village and also to see if there were any men dressing up as women," she said. "That happens sometimes."

In spite of living in exhausting conditions, Baker kept her cheerful demeanor throughout her 10 months of deployment.

"During her deployment, I talked to her and she was always in good spirits," said Ren Forstbauer, a close friend of Baker's since 2003 and a junior in the School of International Service. "Despite her sarcastic personality, she's really an optimistic

person."

Returning to the United States in July 2005 was both a relief and a shock, Baker said. She said she's often disappointed in the way people react to hearing she served in Afghanistan.

"Usually they're like 'Oh, well at least it wasn't Iraq,'" she said. "There are a lot of the same things in Afghanistan, like roadside bombs, that sort of thing."

She said she thinks Afghanistan is in many ways even more dangerous than Iraq because of the soldiers' prevailing mentality.

"A lot of people think it's Afghanistan, so nothing will happen," she said. "And yeah, usually nothing will happen for nine months or so. You let your guard down and in the last month, that's when something happens."

Baker is now back at AU and expects to graduate with a political science degree in May 2007.

Between monthly Reserve drill sessions and working as an assistance operator in the Pentagon, Baker maintains her involvement with the military.

While she said she wouldn't want to be sent off again anytime soon, she considers her experiences in Afghanistan invaluable.

"Hey, if nothing else, the Army's at least good for networking," she said.

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