SOUTHERN IRAQ – Platoon leader 2nd Lt. Sarah Skinner, finger on the trigger of her M-16, gives the order to move forward as troops under her command prepare to bust into 20 derelict buildings where die-hard Iraqi defenders may be hiding.
The three-member teams, including several military policewomen, slither through open doors and into the dusky interiors.
"I wanted to go into police work in the army, but I like this stuff better," said Pvt. Kristi Grant, a member of Skinner's platoon in the 709th Military Police Battalion.
In Iraq, this stuff includes escorting supply convoys through ambush-prone areas, sweeping villages for weapons, arresting Iraqis hostile to U.S. forces and handling prisoners of war.
"There's no job that I can't do in the military police. I like that. It puts me on an even keel with males," said Skinner, of Vassar, Mich.
Grant and Skinner are among the women making up nearly 20 percent of the 709th, which saw duty in Bosnia and Kosovo and fill a number of leadership positions. Two of four platoon leaders in Skinner's company are women and Maj. Gillian Boice is the battalion's executive officer.
On some missions, Grant, of Modesto, Calif., drives a Humvee. On others she climbs into the vehicle's turret to wield a machine gun and multiple grenade launcher. She's qualified to fire three other weapons in the MP arsenal.
Skinner, a 25-year-old West Point graduate, has been patrolling a 150-square-mile area around Tallil Air Base, which is shaping up as a major U.S. military hub in southern Iraq. The base is near the city of Nasiriyah.
"For women, the MPs are the equivalent of the infantry. It's as close as women get to combat," she said as her Humvee barreled through hillocks of sand in the bleak Iraqi desert.
An "Army brat" whose father retired from the Army's finance corps, Skinner says many women opt for an MP career because even other non-combat branches, like engineers and military intelligence, bar women from certain duties.
Women cannot serve in front-line combat units, but MPs go through intensive infantry training. They're taught to advance under live fire, attack bunkers with grenades and move through hostile urban areas.
In Iraq, women MPs say they encounter very few problems unique to their sex.
"I guess the only thing is that I can't lift some of the same things males do, but I try," said Grant, 25, setting off on a 223-mile trek across the desert to pick up prisoners of war captured by combat units.
The private, who signed up for a six-year stint in the Army eight months ago, said she quickly got over her initial anxiety about being squeezed into a tent with male soldiers and discovered "we were much like one family."
Talk among women in the tents swings from an eerie nighttime patrol — peering at a ramshackle building or a stretch of deserted road through night vision goggles — to worries about children and husbands at home.
Skinner's husband is going through the Army's Ranger school at Ft. Benning, Ga., and Boice left her Army major husband and three young children in Germany, where the 709th is based.
Boice, an All-American diver at West Point, served in the 1991 Gulf War. She saw him for a total of 48 hours in 1994 when both had separate, farflung assignments.
Mixing a decisive command style with a lively, outgoing personality, the 35-year-old officer says she revels in her leadership role.
"I wanted to be an aviator. So awesome to control so much combat power. But you're by yourself. I realized I would rather have control of 30 people in a platoon than two or three helicopters," she says.
Boice says she's experienced little male prejudice in her 14 years of service.
"Some men may not like it, but the attitude I take is that everyone has worked for a woman. Everyone's got a mother," she says.
A few years ago, Boice recalled, one tough, old-style Army sergeant arrived at her unit and told her he had never worked for a woman and wasn't going to start now.
"I told him, `That's your problem, not mine, and I'm going to get you through this,"' Boice says.
She did, and the two have become friends.