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FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ - Iraq duty is going well for Dawn Swantko, an outgoing 23-year-old medic from Hobart with hot pink toenails.

She likes her work. She is making new friendships and reaffirming old ones. Her sweetie, Spec. Ben Zimmer-mann is also serving with the 113th Engineering Battalion. She’s learning lots about the emergency room nursing career she plans to pursue and she’s a sucker for the Iraqi kids she sees from time to time. Of course she’s not too fond of the dust, the separation from family or taking time out of school at Indiana University Northwest. But she likes being in contact with patients and she likes the idea of being something of an example for those Iraqi women who have been living in a society where they are subservient.

Swantko is a people person. “My parents always told me not to talk to strangers,” she said. “It never worked. It never worked.”

As one of 16 women in the 400-plus battalion, she bristles at news accounts suggesting promiscuity among soldiers here. “Is it a problem? Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t,” she said. “There’s always going to be a bad egg.”

“There are a lot of stereotypes. Like all a woman has to do is flirt and she’ll get a promotion. That’s so not true,” she said. “It’s so much easier to pick on 16 people than it is to pick on 400 people. There’s always somebody who is going to see you and say, ‘Oh my gosh. So and so went with so and so,’ when you are really just friends.”

Does she get hit on a lot? “I don’t because my boyfriend is here and if they did, he’d kick their butt.”

What about women in combat? “My issue with that is there are women who can do this. Just like every man is not built the same, not every woman is built the same. I think that every woman should have the opportunity to be in combat. Put us to the test. If there is a woman out there who can do it, why not let her try?”

For the most part she has been out of harm’s way, working days in the clinic and being on call the rest of the time. “I’ve been shot at once, she said. That was my very first convoy and I was with my boyfriend. It was my first time in the city. I heard it (gunfire) go off and was a huge reality check.”

Swantko, who took basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., while still in high school, comes from a military family. Her sister graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Her father served in the Navy; his father in the Army. She has been issued a 9mm sidearm, a potent weapon. She admits to being less than a crack shot. “If they ask me to do something, I will do it because it’s my job,” she said.

Her job often takes her to the field, where facilities are less than ideal. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had men hold a blanket for me while I go to the bathroom. It’s just part of it here. It’s either that or have everyone watch,” Swantko said. She sees it as part of the battle buddy system. “We take care of each other. We have the bond – ‘here you are sick, let me take care of you.’ Then, when you get back, it’s like ‘will you hold this blanket for me?’”

On a recent cordon-and-search mission south of here, she more than held her own in the earthy soldier talk department. Her story about being intent on not flinching, about doing what the boys do and then being repulsed by an unspeakably foul Iraqi Army latrine had half a dozen armed men howling with laughter.

Says Swantko: “It’s not always easy being a female here. You have all these issues. But they take good care of us. You can still be a girl, but you have to do it in your off time. I have hot pink toenails. We have pedicure parties. They’re good for girl bonding. The guys like them too. They show us how to fight. We show them the pedicure is a wonderful thing.”

She says she has matured here. “When I first got here I tried to pull the ‘I’m-a-girl-and-I-can’t-do-that’ thing with a regular Army sergeant, and he tore me a new one,” she said. “I was scared because it was just two of us, two females in a vehicle and we were convoying back here (to base through potentially hostile parts of Mozul) and I was just so scared. Everyone was so confident in me. I lacked confidence in myself. It was like you can do this and you are going to do this. You don’t have a choice.

“That little girl in me says ‘I can’t do this without my dad.’ But there’s a bigger girl in you that says ‘OK, just do your job.’”

Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.

To contact Wilson: wsw@rochsent.com.

Published June 15, 2005