When LaShell Lentz went to the cafeteria on her base in Kuwait, she kept her face forward and avoided making eye contact with any of the men there.
"You're like a horse with blinders," says Lentz, a Madison resident. "You never, ever look around."
Lentz says the men who served in her platoon were respectful, but the other American men on the base often took any sign of friendliness from female soldiers as an invitation to make advances.
"All they see all day long is other men," she says. "So every woman is attractive to them. Some days, it's very flattering. On other days, you just want to punch them."
During the year Lentz spent driving truck convoys into Iraq, she was one of only a dozen women in a 55-member platoon. Only 15% of the nation's active-duty force is female. But Lentz, as the platoon's leader, was even more isolated. Only about 15% of the military's officers are female.
"To find someone like you is very difficult," she says. "Officers are supposed to associate with other officers." Two enlisted women eventually became Lentz's best friends while she was overseas. "If I didn't have them, it would have made life more difficult."
Women serving in Iraq face all the same problems as men do - their lives are in constant danger, their fellow soldiers are injured or killed (one of Lentz's drivers was killed by a roadside bomb), and they often return to the U.S. suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. But as women, they have the added burden of being a minority in the male-dominated military. They often endure discrimination, sexual harassment or worse.
In 1990, during the build-up to the first Gulf War, one of Carolyn Morgan's friends was sexually assaulted by an officer. There was no investigation, says Morgan, because the men in charge refused to believe the woman, who was eventually shipped back to the U.S.
"Not only did we have to worry about the enemy, we had to worry about our comrades," says Morgan, who was in the Air Force.
When Morgan returned home to Madison, she went to a meeting for vets at the VFW. But when she walked through the door, she was promptly directed to the kitchen, to a meeting of the Ladies' Auxiliary, for soldiers' girlfriends and wives.
"Every time I went, I was told the auxiliary was in the kitchen," she says. But Morgan notes that things have improved since then. (The VFW, for example, now has three Men's Auxiliaries around the state.) And she's proud of what women have accomplished in the Gulf War and Iraq.
"Women have been able to serve alongside their male counterparts," she says. "They've been able to prove themselves." But still, "There needs to be some way for us female veterans to connect."
Earlier this year, Sharyn Wisniewski of the Wisconsin Women's Network went to hear Abbie Pickett speak. Pickett had been a medic in Iraq and now suffers from PTSD.
"She said if she could get up in the morning and brush her teeth, that was an accomplishment," recalls Wisniewski. "She wanted to just come back to her normal life, and nothing was normal."
Wisniewski was touched by Pickett's story and wanted to do something to help. So she began contacting other women, including Morgan, about creating a Women Veterans Task Force. The group, which now has about 18 members, has put together an informational brochure to help women access benefits, find employment and meet other female vets.
"The public perception is that it's only men who have served," says task force member Cheryl Adams, a Vietnam vet. She notes that women who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam were "not considered a veteran. We were told that point-blank."
But women have been slowly infiltrating the military, although they are still not allowed to serve in certain combat situations. And because of their service, "Women today are eligible for all the same veterans services that men are," says Adams. "They're just not told about it."
Wisniewski hopes the new task force will someday run public service announcements or hold a conference. But it must first raise funds. "We'd like to do more," she says. "But we're all volunteers. It takes time and money." (For more information, see wiwomensnetwork.org.)
Morgan hopes the group can help end the isolation women vets feel, especially on returning home. Because so few women serve in the military, when they come back, they are often scattered across the country. And while men may have some of the same war experiences, they can't understand what it's like to be female - and a soldier.
"My female comrades have endured the sexual trauma," says Morgan. "They've endured the discrimination of being a woman. They've endured hearing people say, ‘You can't do this job.' Or, ‘A woman shouldn't be over there anyway.'"
In 1991, Vera Roddy of Milwaukee was awaiting deployment to Saudia Arabia during the first Gulf War. She had to sleep in a hall with 150 others, mostly men. She says whenever a woman would roll over in bed, some of the men would sit up and gawk. Some male members of her unit finally told them to cut it out.
"We didn't go anywhere by ourselves," she says, adding that at night, the men in her unit would push their cots closer to the women to protect them.
But Roddy scoffs at any notion that women don't belong in the military or in Iraq. "Why should we be excluded?" she demands. "The onus is not on us as women. The onus is on men to prove they can cope with us."
Roddy joined the Air Force in 1977, serving for 15 years. Retired now, she says she would serve in Iraq: "If my country called me, I would drop everything and go. There's really a lot more good experiences than bad."
Lentz agrees, even though she too encountered some problems as a female soldier. As platoon leader, she sometimes had to give orders to the men from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey who'd been hired to drive the trucks into Iraq.
"There were a number of men who, because of their culture, would not take direction from a woman," she says. So Lentz would have to pass the orders through a male soldier in her unit.
Despite everything, Lentz misses the time she spent in Iraq. "While you're there, you feel like your life has a purpose," she says. "Fighting oppression and getting rid of the bad guys - that's a duty worth doing."