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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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General: Iraqi troops improve

January 26, 2005

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January 25, 2005

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January 25, 2005

Politics popular in Shiite areas

January 20, 2005

 

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Thursday, March 4

Female soldiers take toughness for granted

By The (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus-Leader

ELKTON, S.D. - Pfc. Connie Neill flips open her notebook computer, and the screen is filled with an image of a gaping red slash that looks like cleavered meat.

"I asked the doctors to take pictures," she says.

Then she lifts her hair and shows a long, livid scar twisting up the back of her neck, narrowly missing her carotid artery.

In a small plastic case, with several military unit medallions, is a more tidy and traditional memento of a wounded warrior: a Purple Heart.

American women have participated more extensively in combat in Iraq than in any previous war in U.S. history. Pentagon officials do not keep track of the number of women serving in Iraq. Overall, 15 percent of active-duty troops and 17 percent of National Guard and reserve forces are women.

Of the more than 500 deaths among service members working in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 15 are women.

"One more thing I've got to worry about," says Neill's mother, Theresa.

Her daughter is more excited about the new pickup that she was able to buy with her pay as a member of the 101st Airborne's Military Police Company.

"It's a good story to tell," she says about her injury. "But it didn't affect me emotionally."

Such tough-mindedness, she figures, comes from being brought up around cattle, horses and dogs, and in a family with a father whose military service in the Korean War still is commemorated by a photo on a parlor wall.

"I was in 4-H and FFA, a total farm girl. That helped in the Army, kind of a roughneck thing," she says.

The day after her convoy was attacked by a roadside bomb on Jan. 8 near Mosul, Neill asked a member of her squad go back to the site and take a photograph of where the explosion occurred. That picture has a place in an album that chronicles an expansive sweep of life for a 20-year-old.

That includes a photo of her, hair covered by a tan bandanna, standing in a Humvee in the armored well of an M249 machine gun mount - in military terminology, a squad automatic weapon.

"That was my SAW," she says. "My job was protecting my truck, no matter what."

Neill joined the Army shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, because after high school, nothing else in life had yet suggested itself as something worth pursuing.

"Being a female MP is the closest you can get to combat," she says. "I have been shot at plenty of times. I know."

Neill's squad escorted fuel and supply convoys from Turkey to Mosul, or high-ranking officers, including Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne. She was on such an escort mission when she was wounded.

"There were a lot of females in my squad. We would go out, and 200 kids would follow us. People would take our pictures, touch us. We'd have to push them back," she says.

What people need to know about Iraqis, she says, is that most of the animosity toward U.S. soldiers comes from the fact that they are an occupying army.

Iraqis, she says, "are people. ... I got hurt by them, but they didn't do it personally."

Since Neill has been home on leave, she and buddy Angel Clark have been reconnecting the geography of their lifelong friendship, and finding all the points are still there.

"It's the same old Connie, but even better," Clark says. "She has so many more stories."

Neill has several more years in her current enlistment before she must decide whether she wants to make law enforcement a career in the military or go on to other things.

"For only being in the Army a year and seven months," she says, "I think I've accomplished a lot."