Tech Sgt.Charity Durham, a combat arms NCOIC at Patrick Air Force Base, trains a group of airmen from the 920 Rescue Wing for annual qualification with the M-9 pistol. (Malcolm Denemark / Florida Today)
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PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. Before the Defense Department lifted its ban on women in combat roles in January, Tech Sgt. Charity Durham had already fought in the war in Iraq as a .50-caliber gunner on a Humvee and as a combat-arms trainer in Afghanistan.
Before coming to Patrick, Durham did the same job for the Alaska National Guard, though it was not the assignment she was offered when she joined the service. She was told they needed someone for office work or they had an opening for a gunner. She chose gunner.
"I had no problem fitting in with the guys and deploying with them," she said of her service in Iraq.
"If you allow gender to come into play, that's when you'll have problems," Durham, 28, said during a break in training members of Patrick's Air Force Reserve 920th Rescue Wing in the use of 9mm pistols. "I'm very professional. For me, it's never an issue.
Durham and many other women at Patrick Air Force Base and elsewhere have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they weren't officially assigned combat roles.
"Usually the women who want to go do those jobs are the women who are capable of doing it," she said.
As a member of a military police unit, Staff Sgt. Lauren Sorrells drove Humvees as she and her team helped protect convoys through dusty and dangerous roads in Iraq, many times escaping injury from bomb blasts.
"I was in combat," said the 27-year-old who serves with 45th Security Forces Squadron at Patrick. "I've had my vehicle hit seven times by IEDs (improvised explosive devices)."
About 30 days into her deployment, she was just ahead of the vehicle in which http://www.militarytimes.com/valor/air-force-airman-1st-class-jason-d-nathan/2857463">Senior Airman Jason Nathan was killed by a roadside bomb.
"When I came up, boom, a huge blast," she said. "He was the gunner in the third vehicle. I ran into a tree."
Sorrells, who wears a metal bracelet with Nathan's name, said she never missed a mission going into the danger zones while deployed to Iraq.
"It's like with any job," she said. "You have to have the mindset for it."
Staff Sgt. Sade Spencer, who served in Qatar during the war in Iraq, said women have to prove they can do a job in a male-dominated field.
"You have to face adversity," Spencer said. "You have to do your job. They respect you when they understand you can do your job.
Tech Sgt. Jessica Sonnier, a member of the 45th Security Forces, has worked 10 years as a dog handler.
When she served in Afghanistan in 2007, part of her assignment involved being taken by helicopter to the side of roadways. She and her dog would then sweep for bombs before convoys could use the road.
"We have been in combat all the time," Sonnier said.
"We're shooting at people. We are being shot at."
Like Spencer, Sonnier believes the treatment women receive from men in combat zones depends on how well the women do their jobs.
"It depends on how a woman carries herself whether a man will respect her and what she does," said Sonnier.
"All our missions were outside the wire," she said, referring to the relative safety of bases. "I found IEDs and saved countless of lives, no doubt."
During a recent interview, Sonnier's eyes welled with tears as she talked about http://www.militarytimes.com/valor/air-force-airman-1st-class-elizabeth-n-jacobson/2618900">Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson, who was killed Sept. 28, 2005, in a roadside bombing in Iraq. She volunteered to go on a mission."
The women once served in the same deployed unit, though at different times.
Spencer spoke about a supervisor she once had, a 4-foot-10-inch woman. She was giving orders to a man who was much taller, and she wanted to get eye-to-eye with him.
She "jumped up on a table and yelled at a guy," Spencer said. " ‘Are you looking down at me?' "
On a recent morning at Patrick Air Force Base indoor gun range, Durham yelled out instructions over the sound of gunfire to officers and enlisted personnel she was training in the use of 9mm pistols.
"This is how you want to hold your weapon," Durham told the airmen, some of them pilots and navigators with the Air Force Reserve 920th Rescue Wing. "Square off to your target. Ready, fire."
The officers in Durham's class said they were pleased with her and the refresher training she conducted.
"It's her expertise," said Capt. Chris Ferrera, a C-130 pilot. "I thought she did a great job of employing basic principles.
Maj. Rod Stout, a Pave Hawk helicopter pilot, said he received good instruction from Durham.
"She had a lot of very good tips," he said.