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USO ships frilly care packs to female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan

Jill Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi fill care packages for female soldiers. Contents include makeup, facial bars and eye masks.

Photo courtesy of the USO

Jill Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi fill care packages for female soldiers. Contents include makeup, facial bars and eye masks.

The care packages have a decidedly dainty feel.

Sure, there is the standard-issue beef jerky. The raisins. The toothbrush.

Then there is the Maybelline mascara, and the lipstick in light pink and burgundy. Mineral makeup. Tampons. A Lady Speed Stick. A botanical facial bar. Eye masks.

Also, a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine with headlines like "8 Things Guys Notice Instantly," "Hot New Party Dresses" and "Mind Tricks That Melt Pounds."

And a camouflage makeup bag.

A pink one.

• • •

Femininity in the military is no longer shunned, if you look to the United Service Organizations. This holiday, the USO assembled 2,000 care packages specifically for servicewomen deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. The organization has doled out 200 so far, and the rest will trickle out over time.

It's the first time in 67 years that the USO has singled out women with care packages.

Why now?

"Our warehouse was getting a lot of requests from female troops saying, 'These are nice, but they have nothing specific for us. We don't have anything we can shave with. We don't have anything that will make us smell good. We don't have anything that will help keep our nails manicured,' " said USO spokeswoman Patrice Cameau.

Giants of politics, including Jill Biden and Nancy Pelosi, gathered in Arlington to stuff the care packages in November. And giants of the beauty industry — including the Benchmarking Co., Avon, Jane Iredale and Nick Chavez Beverly Hills — sponsored the effort, donating money and products.

"These are female-centric," Sheila Casey, wife of Army chief of staff Gen. George W. Casey, said in front of the cameras at the event. "In it we have creams and soaps and lipsticks and magazines and things that are great for women."

Bob Williams, who runs Support the Troops out of Wesley Chapel, has sent items to women for 28 years.

"I just sent flannel pajamas and bathrobes and blue slippers to Navy nurses," he said. "The military has guidelines as to the shades of lipstick and shades of nail polish, but they do get time off and they do get R&R and different celebrations for Thanksgiving and birthdays when they maybe want to do their hair."

Last year a military wife from Lakeland, Melissa Sanchez, started buying creams and foot lotions and bath puffs on sale at Target and Walgreens. She boxed them up and sent them to female troops using her own money.

"They're always telling them, 'You're the same as the guys, you're one of the guys,' " said Sanchez, 28. "Well, if it was me, I would understand that I'm one of the guys. But females have different needs."

• • •

The first female solider in America was named Deborah, but she called herself Robert.

She taped down her breasts, and as history has it, carved a musket ball out of her own leg to avoid being discovered. That was the American Revolution. The modern military is 20 percent female, homogenized in uniform and rank, yet still split by the ability to fight on the front lines.

After those strides, is it damaging to play up gender roles?

"It really is stressing the feminine," said Marilyn Myerson, interim chairwoman of women's studies at the University of South Florida. "I would assume that women in the military have certainly gone beyond that sense of what it means to be feminine. They are aware of their own strengths, or otherwise, they wouldn't be in the military."

Why not send a good novel instead of Cosmo? Myerson asks. "I can understand people in the military wanting balance … but I just don't think that's the way to do it."

At 26, Rachael Clayton sports highlights and skinny jeans and calls herself a bit of a diva. The St. Petersburg kitchen and bath designer just joined the Navy. She reports to boot camp in May.

"When I put on makeup in the morning, it gives me some confidence," she said. "I don't need it to be a strong woman, but it gives me a boost. If that helps a servicewoman feel better about herself and gives her that extra kick in the rear, then she should be able to do it."

Some female leaders have learned to toe the line.

Sarah Palin wears sky-high heels and has unapologetically cracked wise about her lipstick. Michelle Obama pairs her sculpted deltoids with frilly sleeveless gowns. She recently hosted a White House tea party for military women.

Pairing frills with force is a kind of third-wave feminism, Myerson said. "There's a movement on the part of some young women to say, 'Yeah, we want to embrace cosmetics, and if we want to wear our high heels, it doesn't make us any less a feminist,' " she said.

• • •

Do troops even want a lipstick?

"I'm going to say no," said Vicky Fales, a Dunedin sign language interpreter who served in the Air Force during the Persian Gulf War. "I was a security police, and that was a male-dominated career field. I wanted more to blend in and not so much stand out."

Still, she appreciates the sentiment behind the pink bags.

"In the first Gulf War, there weren't as many women as compared to now," said Fales, 38. "It's more acceptable, and so this outward gesture that the USO is doing almost symbolizes an acceptance and a recognition."

In the service, toenails get the most pampering, said Jennifer Simpson, a Marine captain and instructor with USF's Naval ROTC program.

"There are a lot of females that wear some funky colors on their toes," said Simpson, 28. "It's one of the few things they can do to keep themselves looking feminine. As far as the makeup goes, I don't know a single female who would want to put some makeup on before she goes on a mission."

Tina Herliska, a St. Petersburg mom and Air Force sergeant, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is blond and ladylike and sells Mary Kay products. But overseas, her favorite care packages were not girly.

"We got socks that were filled with toothpaste and soap and stuff," said Herliska, 38. "Those were great. We mainly handed those out to the soldiers that were injured because a lot of them came in with their boots cut off and no socks."

She yearned for clean underwear and sports bras, not lipstick. She asked her husband to send her a microwave and DVDs. Beauty just wasn't practical.

But there was one thing …

"I brought hair color," she said. "I didn't want my roots to show."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

USO ships frilly care packs to female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan 12/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 28, 2009 11:18pm]
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