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Confronting the issues our female soliders face

Editor’s Note: This is a part of a collection of stories SDNN will publish throughout the month of March to celebrate Women’s History Month. Join us as we recognize Women’s History Month by sending in your stories too and checking SDNN every day for stories from other women in our region. Happy Women’s History Month!

On Monday in Sacramento, the Legislature celebrated the state’s annual Woman of the Year event. I thought of a few related things while watching the Academy Awards two nights before.

(I once heard that “Politics is show business for ugly people” – but I prefer to think of us as people who just don’t have the same time or budget for gorgeous wardrobes, special lighting, make-up artists or special effects.)

Fittingly, Katherine Bigelow made history during Women’s History Month at the Academy Awards this year, by winning in the Best Director category. This is the first time a woman has done so in the Academy’s history. She won for her film “Hurt Locker,” about men who disarm IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) in Iraq.

“Hurt Locker” was also won Picture of the Year and Best Sound Editing- so congratulations for all that, too, Bigelow. Well done.

If you haven’t seen it, “Hurt Locker” is an amazing and suspenseful film with hardly a woman character in it. Yet Bigelow has managed to capture the drama, setting, heat and dust so well, it is truly the best movie I have seen about this war that has gone on now for seven years.

As I watched her acceptance speech I thought of how, for the first time in U.S. history, women are fighting and dying in combat alongside men in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is happening not by law, but by necessity.

Our commanders tell us we simply cannot wage these wars without women warriors fighting, driving trucks, and doing everything else required in wartime, right alongside the men- including killing the enemy, and being injured and killed themselves.

Yet women are still not technically allowed to be “assigned” to combat, so instead, they are “attached” to combat units. It is a distinction without a difference.

And perhaps because this is not “official policy,” we still don’t have the PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) treatment centers or other resources available for women veterans that are needed when they return home from their combat tours.

This is one reason why the California Women’s Legislative Caucus has made women in the military and military families’ our top priority areas these last two years since I’ve been Caucus chairwoman. We recognize that women are facing a new level of stress during this war, unlike any they’ve experienced in this nation’s history. And we worry they won’t have the support they need when they come home and begin returning to their lives as students, girlfriends, co-workers, wives, mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters.

I also worry that women increasingly face the threat of sexual assault at the hands of their colleagues.

How serious a problem is this? As a member of the Veteran’s Affair committee, I’ve talked with military officers and heard testimony in committees that makes me believe this is a very serious problem.

One young service woman told us she made the mistake of drinking alcohol with fellow underage servicemen after training one day. But when she was raped in her room later that night, her attacker went unpunished, while she was accused of breaking the rules for drinking alcohol and being under 21. Frustrated, angry and scared of other attacks, she eventually resigned from her military assignment.

And I will never forget hearing from a woman who operates a residential counseling center for woman veterans in Los Angeles. She estimated that every woman she was assisting had been sexually assaulted either prior to, or during, her military service.

Clearly, we need to provide more support for women before, during and after their military service.

But something else is happening because of this war: women in Iraq are being impacted in a positive way when it comes to their political opportunities. For the first time in modern history, they are being allowed to participate in their own government. But along with this participation comes some risk.

The Iraq Constitution calls for at least 25 percent of Parliament’s seats to go to women. (Initially, women had requested 40 percent, but this was reduced by the U.S. advisers on constitutional reforms.)

And according to a recent New York Times report, “12 women from outside the political system have formed their own party, with a platform built on women’s rights and a jobs program for Iraq’s more than 700,000 widows.”

One woman Minister claims “Iraqi women in the Parliament are more serious, more devoted, more present and more interactive than men with the public issues.”

Sounds a bit like what I’ve experienced here in the U.S. at the state and federal level.

Sadly, women in Iraq are being threatened and harassed when they run for office. And they also face very similar challenges as women in the states. For example, “Iraqi women have higher rates of poverty and unemployment than men, and lower levels of education.” (Women in the U.S. actually are doing better in terms of education, but are still struggling with high rates of poverty and unemployment.)

So, one war, two nations, and daunting challenges for women on both sides of the planet. Iraqi women are making gains in the area of political representation and power, but dealing with the fallout of warfare in their nation. And American women are struggling to recover from serving in combat for the first time in the nation’s history without adequate services available for them.

Which brings us to our Woman of the Year ceremony. It is so important for us to set this day aside to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of the women assembled from around California.

My message to them is simple: We need them to continue their essential work.

We need them to be role models for other women.

And we need them to continue to succeed as they take on the incredible challenges in this state. We are happy they have been honored for this work in the Assembly Chamber on March 8.

Lori Saldana is a California Assemblymember representing the 76th District.