The unit's first 50 deployable female soldiers will fill support roles
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 03, 2010
The Hawaii boys of the Army Reserve's famed 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, will have to make way for some girls on their next war-zone deployment.
With the activation of the 740th Combat Support Company on Sept. 16, about 50 female soldiers now wear the battalion's Statue of Liberty patch on their left shoulder. They specialize in transportation, maintenance, supply and food services -- and can go with the battalion to a combat zone for the first time in the storied unit's 68-year history.
"The military has their reasons for not allowing females into combat arms and I may not understand that at this point, but does that mean that women should be limited? No," said Sgt. Maria Pantella, 31, a noncommissioned officer in charge of a wrecker crew. "If you can do the job, then, yes, do that job."
The change is a little bit harder to swallow for the steely World War II nisei veterans who battled suspicion at home and Germans in Europe, earning the respect of the nation through their bravery.
Some of the veterans gather every Thursday at the 100th Infantry Battalion clubhouse for beer, wine, food and camaraderie, and call themselves the "Wine Gang."
Goro Sumida, 90, who served in Africa, Italy and France, remembers the winter conditions were horrible.
"The worst part is, we fight in the winter time with summer clothing," he said. "We got soaking wet. Eleven days, no more clothes. We were drinking rainwater and river water with dead Germans floating in the water."
Sumida said he couldn't imagine women in such circumstances.
"If they drive trucks and they bring ammunition to the front lines, that's dangerous already," he said.
WOMEN IN UNIFORM continue to edge closer to the front lines, even if they are still prohibited from serving in "direct ground combat" roles. More than 92 percent of military occupational specialties are open to women, according to the Pentagon.
In combat zones, women fly planes, are work as military police and medics, drive trucks, accompany ground units and search women, and handle search dogs, among other jobs. The Navy in April announced a policy change to allow women to serve on submarines.
On Feb. 23, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, about remaining prohibitions.
"Senator, I believe that it's time that we take a look at what women are actually doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and look at our policy," Casey said.
The evolution of women's roles in the military isn't lost on Lt. Col. Kimo Dunn, who assumed command of the 740-soldier 100th Battalion, an Army Reserve unit, in January.
Dunn said his mother, Anna Kim, was one of the first Hawaii volunteers with the Women's Army Corps, created during World War II to enable women to serve in noncombat jobs.
"Now they are in a combat support company in direct support of an infantry battalion," Dunn said. "So in a positive manner, women have proved themselves."
The 100th-442nd, headquartered at Fort Shafter Flats, is the only remaining infantry battalion in the U.S. Army Reserve. The "Go For Broke" unit deployed to Iraq in 2005 and to Kuwait in late 2008 with a mission to provide convoy security into Iraq.
Some female soldiers wore the 100th patch and had support roles before the creation of the 740th Combat Support Company, but Dunn said they were not deployable with the unit.
SGT. PANTELLA ADMITS she was a little apprehensive about becoming part of the legendary all-male 100th Battalion but says she is up for the challenge. In 2006-07, she was a Humvee and auto mechanic in Balad, Iraq, providing support to the 5th and 10th Special Forces Groups.
She calls her new affiliation with the 100th Battalion "a great honor," adding, "When you look back into their history, it's pretty nuts.
"I was a little nervous about it, because I was like, 'This is going to be difficult. These guys aren't going to like us.' People tell you rumors," she said.
The reality is she has been struck by the brotherhood of the 100th.
"They take care of each other -- the ohana -- and they are just a great family," said Pantella, who runs a fitness training center in civilian life. "I guess all we can hope for is they accept us as sisters, as a sister counterpart for support."
Staff Sgt. Lori Klem, 37, also part of the 740th, is equally comfortable in her role. She drove trucks for thousands of miles throughout Iraq in 2007, and the units she's been with have hauled tanks and heavy equipment.
"I'm used to working with a lot of guys," Klem said.
In the 100th Battalion Veterans clubhouse hang the pictures of 39 presidents of the organization, all men.
But times are changing.
Brig. Gen. Michele G. Compton, an Iraq war veteran, in May took over the 9th Mission Support Command, which oversees Army Reserve units in the Pacific, including the 100th-442nd.
Takashi Kitaoka, a retired Maui circuit judge who also was in saw combat in World War II and at 98 is hard of hearing, needed some repeat explanations at Thursday's get-together before understanding that women are now part of the 100th.
"Well, what's wrong with that?" Kitaoka finally said. "After it's done, what's the use of fighting it? That's progress, I guess."