Women in combat

The role of women in the military is not frequently talked about, according to Ilene Henderson, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. Henderson spoke about her experiences on Monday. 

Military history is well-documented and appreciated in the United States. Veterans day, a day to honor those who’ve served in our military, was on Saturday. There are 19 classes in the military sciences department at JMU.  One soldier came to JMU on Monday to talk about a lesser understood aspect of our military — the role of women.

Ilene Henderson, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, spoke in Memorial Hall about her experience as a counterintelligence agent. Henderson was deployed in Haiti in 1996, Afghanistan in 2003-04 and Iraq in 2006-07.

While deployed in Iraq, Henderson gathered intel for two military units, Alpha Company and Baker Company. Henderson said she experienced gender discrimination in Iraq — Alpha’s captain wouldn’t work with her because she was a woman. As a result, three soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device in Alpha Company’s territory that Henderson said she could’ve prevented.


“I can’t change the fact that I’m a female,” Henderson said. “So to hold that against me, and then the result be that three guys are dead, that hurts.”

Henderson was guest speaking for a class taught by Amelia Underwood called American Women at War. Underwood, a professor of military sciences, also served on active duty in the U.S. Army as a field artillery officer.

“I teach a military history, just a survey course in military history, and what I realized is in all of the textbooks, there was really nothing that talked about the combat experience or women’s roles in the military,” Underwood said. “I wanted to have an opportunity for students to understand women’s contributions.”

The course was started about three years ago and covers as far back as the colonial period to present day, and examines women’s roles in the military and society as a whole.

“I think it’s important to celebrate the accomplishments of women,” Underwood said. “For the students to see [Henderson], talk with her, hear about her experiences, it’s not just something in these books we’ve been reading or articles we’ve been talking about.”

Underwood’s course discusses how military service has been a vehicle to promote equality for women, which is a sentiment that Henderson echoed, despite her experience in Iraq.

“I think the military is actually doing very well,” Henderson said. “My concern now is that the civilian world needs to catch up to the military, but the civilian world socially in this country has always lagged behind the military.”

Henderson said that while the military as a whole does well in promoting equality, that doesn’t mean that everyone in the military is that way.

“There’s always that guy,” Henderson said. “There were definitely guys that I would have to kind of prove myself more to.”

Students from Underwood’s class attended the talk, but the event was open to the public as well. Henderson’s presentation left an impression on Underwood’s students who are studying what Henderson has actually experienced.

“Something that definitely stuck with me was when she explained about how basically lives could have been saved had her supervisor believed in her abilities, but didn’t because of her gender,” Iliana Ioannides, a junior interdisciplinary liberal studies major, said.

Underwood said she’s passionate about continuing to educate students on women’s roles in the military, whether it be through guest speakers like Henderson or with her own lectures.

“Sometimes it can get really daunting and frustrating in thinking that equality is never going to happen,” Underwood said. “We’re not there, but I like to celebrate the victories along the way, and Ilene’s one of those.”

Contact Thomas Robertson at rober3tl@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

Thomas Robertson is a staff writer for the Breeze. He’s a senior media arts & design major. Thomas is a die-hard DC sports fan who also enjoys trying to be good at golf, listening to hip-hop and arguing about sports.