CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq – Retracing her path to becoming a brigadier general in Iraq, Rebecca Halstead remembers her first command back in 1981 where, as a freshly minted lieutenant, she was teamed with a sergeant who had served in Vietnam.
It was a rough beginning. After a month at the U.S. Army's base in Vicenza, Italy, Halstead pulled the sergeant aside and outlined two of the three strikes she thought he held against her:
She was yet another officer for him to train; she was from West Point; and — as the petite Halstead stood on a rock to look the sergeant in the eye — she told him strike three was that she's short.
"And he just started laughing because I know he thought I was going to say (it's) 'because I'm a woman.' And that probably was what the issue was," Halstead recalled during an interview at her office on this base 50 miles north of Baghdad.
That attitude has helped her become the first West Point woman to rise to the rank of general. And as top officer of the 3rd Corps Support Command, she is the highest-ranking female currently serving in Iraq as a battlefield commander. She has also served in Afghanistan.
Gender? "You can make it an issue if you want to, or you can figure out other ways to skin that cat," said Halstead, 47, from Willseyville, N.Y. "And I've always tried to figure out other ways to skin that cat."
Her job is to keep the troops supplied with everything from bullets to water as well as to train Iraqi soldiers to eventually take over their own supply operations.
In this conservative Muslim culture, where many women robe their themselves in black and can't go unescorted by a male relative, Halstead said she has had no problems working with Iraqi soldiers.
"I did wonder about that when I came over here. But I think they respect the rank. They respect the position," said Halstead.
"I've gone through their barracks. I've stood in their latrines. I've talked to them about discipline and soldiering. And at the end of the day, I kind of usually tap my chest and say, 'You know, we're soldiers together, and soldiering is about what's inside."
She has served in the United States, Italy and Germany but describes herself as "just a country girl from a town with no traffic lights." It was her mother, she says, who encouraged her to apply to West Point after reading in a newspaper that it was accepting women.
After graduation, she made a career in logistics — the units responsible for housing, clothing, feeding and arming the military — for the simple reason that at the time she graduated, most of the other branches, such as aviation and intelligence were closed to women.
The combat branches of infantry, artillery and armor are still closed to women, although they serve in support functions of those units.
But in a war with no front lines, 54 U.S. servicewomen have been killed along with two civilian contractors with the Department of Defense and three women working for other coalition members, according to the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad.
Women make up about 15 percent of the Army's ranks. And Halstead, who became a general in 2004, said a male-only military is simply no longer an option.
"If you were to say tomorrow we cannot have women in the Army and you took all the women out, we could not do our mission, because we are so well integrated, and we are so instrumental to the success of the military," Halstead said.
She will probably leave Iraq next month when the 3rd Corps Support Command is scheduled to be replaced, and will become chief of ordnance at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Back in the United States, she's looking forward to life without constantly humming generators and F-16 fighter planes roaring overhead, and also to seeing family and friends she credits with her military success.
"I really believe it's been faith, friends and family that's gotten me through all these years," said Halstead.