This photograph from Afghanistan recently made rounds on the Facebook and e-mail accounts of folks whose work centers on military women's issues.
The image itself didn't surprise them. It showed four Marines resting at a makeshift patrol base, their guns and helmets propped up against the familiar dusty backdrop of an Asian battlefield. Two of the Marines seemed to be snacking. One picked at her foot.
Yes, her foot.
The four Marines were women, but the caption for the photo that ran above the fold on the front page of the New York Times earlier this month made no mention of their gender. They were identified simply as "American Marines." The braided hair and feminine features spoke for themselves.
Yet the very lack of attention given to the Marines' sex ended up drawing notice anyway. Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain, said she and her colleagues were struck by the matter-of-fact nature of the image's presentation.
"Isn't it amazing? It's just four Marines in a dugout. And nobody's pointing out that it's four female Marines," said Manning, director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington.
Speaking by phone last week from their base in southern Afghanistan, the four Marines said the generic photo caption suited them just fine.
"For most of us, there's no such thing as a female Marine," said Lance Cpl. Jordan Herald, who is from Chenoa, Ill. "We do the same things, so there's no reason to classify us any different."
Today's American military is at some critical crossroads. The war in Afghanistan is in its ninth year, and things don't look good. Reports indicate that the Taliban are the strongest they've been since being pushed from power in 2001, the Afghan election is unresolved, and violence against American soldiers and Marines has risen.
President Barack Obama is considering whether to send an additional 40,000 troops to the country. The stakes are high: Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, candidly told his boss that inadequate resources would doom the United States' military efforts there.
Back home, Obama has pledged to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military, and the Navy is considering allowing women to serve on submarines for the first time.
The latter news gives hope to those who support officially expanded roles for women in the Army and Marine Corps. On paper, Defense Department policy still bars women from serving in ground combat units.
But that policy, crafted in 1994, didn't anticipate the current realities that American troops face. There is no front line. The moment service members step on Iraqi or Afghan soil, they are in harm's way.
And though women technically are supposed to serve in jobs that keep them away from direct enemy contact — making specialties like infantry, armor, field artillery and Special Forces off-limits — the rules have increasingly been blurred and skirted as they prove their mettle during the extended conflicts.
In these wars, women serve as machine gunners. They drive trucks down roads booby-trapped with bombs. They tend to wounded colleagues as bullets whiz by. They patrol streets and dispose of explosives. In some cases, they kill.
The approximately 800 female Marines currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan make up roughly 4.5 percent of the total Marine Corps force deployed there. More than 17,500 female soldiers are supporting the Army's efforts in those countries, or about 10 percent of the deployed force.
Some have received medals for valor. Others have paid the ultimate price. Since 2001, seven female Marines have been killed in action, all of them in Iraq. Eighty-two female soldiers have died in Iraq, and 10 lost their lives in Afghanistan, according to figures provided by those branches.
"Iraq has advanced the cause of full integration for women in the Army by leaps and bounds," retired Army Col. Peter R. Mansoor told the New York Times last summer.
Ironically, the expanded roles for women in the military have come about in countries that severely limit the freedoms of their own female citizens. Even as more American women climb the military ranks — last year, Ann E. Dunwoody became the first female four-star general — Afghan women still face oppressive restrictions on their basic rights and have to worry about their daughters being doused with acid as they walk to school.
The paradox goes further. The cultural barriers breaking down, perhaps inadvertently, in the American military are due in part to the cultural barriers that exist in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most women in the those countries can't talk to or be seen by men who aren't related to them. To show sensitivity to local customs, female soldiers and Marines are called upon to search the women for weapons. They process and interrogate female detainees. And teams of female U.S. Marines have recently begun donning head scarves under their helmets in an attempt to build relationships with, and perhaps gain intelligence from, Afghan women in some of the country's most dangerous areas.
The four Marines featured in the New York Times were photographed "outside the wire" as members of these female engagement teams. Tasked with searching and engaging the women and children in villages located in southern Afghanistan, female Marines have effectively been pushed to the front lines out of necessity. The Afghan women won't speak to Western men, but maybe they'll open up to their own sex.
The four Marines spend most of their time stationed at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, where they work alongside their male counterparts driving trucks, setting up radio communications and maintaining and building bombs and missile launchers.
Their names and ranks are Lance Cpl. Ryann Campion, Sgt. Kendra Herbst, Cpl. Kayla Boisvert and Lance Cpl. Jordan Herald. They have been in Afghanistan since spring.
The world of uniforms and service to country is in their blood. All four women have family members who have also served. But that didn't make their decisions to join the Marines any easier on their loved ones. Not in this war.
"My mom gave me the option of college or military. But I don't think she thought I was going to choose military, so she was scared," said Boisvert, a 22-year-old from Tyngsboro, Mass. Her brother, a fellow Marine, lost part of his right leg and the use of his right hand after he was hit by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2004.
"He didn't want me to do it," Herald said of her father, an Army sergeant who is also serving in Afghanistan. "But he knew it was something I wanted to do, so he supported me."
The women said they wanted to see new things, travel and earn money for college. They relish the challenge the Marine Corps offers.
"I go on any type of mission that is tasked because I want to experience it all," said Campion, a 19-year-old from Hatboro, Pa.
Their gender does set them apart, even if they are reluctant to acknowledge it. They have separate bathrooms, showers and living quarters at Camp Leatherneck. They feel like they have to try harder to prove themselves, and they don't want anything handed to them. They know the Afghan men aren't crazy about having them around and maybe some of their own male colleagues aren't either.
But they are also a part of the generation of female service members who have dispelled many of the fears people had about sending women into combat. The women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown they are capable of handling the emotional and physical rigors of wars that high-ranking officials say could not have been fought without them.
"We're all trained the same," Herald said.
"No one is willing to admit inferiority to males," joked Capt. Abraham Sipe, the deputy public affairs officer who coordinated the phone interview for this story.
Herbst, a 24-year-old from Somonauk, Ill., chimed in.
"That's 'cause it doesn't exist."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Information from the New York Times was also used. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.