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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Meet the troops

Katy Studer

ALEXANDRIA, La. – Katy Studer, a bright 23-year-old from Bonners Ferry, joined the National Guard to pay for college.

Last winter, just one class shy of graduating from the University of Idaho, she was pulled away to active duty with the rest of the 116th Brigade Combat Team and told she would be spending a year in Iraq.

“At the very beginning I was freaked out about it,” Studer said Thursday night, sitting in the mess hall at the old England Air Base here.

Sure, there was being pulled out of school when all she had left was her senior research project on interior design. But there was more.

“I had heard about a high percentage of rape and harassment” in the military as a whole, she said.

“That was part of my fear before I came here.”

She cut her hair, which used to reach down to the middle of her back, to about an inch long. “I wanted to be less identifiable.” She also wanted to look tougher, to show she was serious about becoming a soldier.

Women, though they have different physical training requirements, are expected to meet the same standards as men.

In the past five months as the 4,300 citizen soldiers in the brigade have been hammered into a combat-ready unit, Studer has relaxed. She has a fulfilling job, she said, working computers in the Combat Engineer Battalion’s headquarters company for the S3 office (“That’s intelligence. I can’t talk about it,” she said with a wink.)

She is one of 170 women in the brigade and says she has to walk a fine line through the constant attention from male soldiers. There have been no sexual assaults, she said. “I learned I can trust people.”

She said she feels like a gender spy as a woman in a man’s world.

“I miss being a girl. I can’t wear my funky shoes, or my earrings and my bracelets,” Studer said. Female soldiers have to wear their hair pulled back, can’t wear much makeup. “I don’t want to be in a man’s world. There are times I want to go home.”

There is a sense, talking with Studer, that being a woman in the military is like a scene from old submarine movies; where the sonar pings are hitting the hull.

Female soldiers get the sonar pings every moment they walk around. And it’s all too easy, Studer said, “for women to be labeled in negative ways. If you are too friendly, you get called a slut. If you are not friendly, you get called a bitch.”

She offers these observations, not with anger, but with the interest of an anthropologist fascinated by a discovery. On the whole, Studer said, her experience has been good.

“I went from scared to proud,” Studer said. “I’m excited to go. If we didn’t go, I’d be disappointed. I changed my whole life for this.”

She has even found a way to complete her senior research project. She will do it in Kirkuk.

“I want to design a women’s center or a children’s center – something to help the people of Iraq,” she said.

She is fascinated by feminism and is eager to research the roles of women in a Muslim culture. Already, Studer said, her stereotypes of women covered by chadors have been bashed. Iraq has been a secular, Westernized country. And northern Iraq around Kirkuk, dominated by Kurds, has its own dynamic.

“There is the modern Middle East and the ancient,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to getting into it.”