*Shifting the Tide is an ongoing series that captures the voices of women in combat. For Part One, we hear the story of retired Gunnery Sergeant Rosie Noel.
While Noel was stationed at Al Asad Air Force base in Iraq in 2005, a rocket hit her barracks. A piece of shrapnel the size of a thumb wounded the Marine in her jaw. Bleeding profusely with no one around, it was a defining moment for Noel. She would likely have to return home. But this wasn’t an option for the mother of two.
The surgeon told Noel she’d need a steel plate in her mouth. Her jaw would be wired shut. He said she’d go to Germany, then on to Bethesda, Maryland. Noel knew the farther away they sent her, the less likely she’d return to Iraq. She told him that wasn’t an option. She would not leave her Marines.
“When I got hurt, people thought I should go home, because I’m a mom with children. Well, they don’t ask men to go home when they’re hurt because they’re fathers when they get wounded. They stay. And so I kind of removed that fodder by refusing to leave my marines and staying. If I’d had gone home, it would have always been speculated that I went home because “she’s a woman and couldn’t handle it.” And that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The next day, she was back on base.
“It meant a lot to the morale of those young Marines, because the last they heard, half my face had been blown off. And for them to see me walking and I played it down a little bit, um, but you know, it was obvious, you know we go home on our terms, and that’s something I let them understand. You know, we’re here to do a job, and we finish it.
During Noel’s twenty year career with the Marines, she earned her way up to a senior-enlisted rank. If someone gave her flak, she could put them in their place. And as the May 15 deadline approaches for all military branches to submit plans to the Pentagon for lifting the combat ban on women, Noel says this is important: women in senior-enlisted roles. She says it will help with the formal integration of women in combat.
"There’re going to be men who don’t want them there, cause that’s the reality of it, there’s going to be a lot of men who think it’s going to affect their morale, and their ability to do their job, so they need to be mature enough to handle that, you know, that attention, both positive and negative.”
When Noel returned home in 2006, she suffered migraines. Her speech patterns weren’t right. She sustained a traumatic brain injury from the blast. But she was so consumed with adjusting to life after deployment, she put treatment off. A year went by and she was put on a waiting list for cognitive therapy at Onslow Memorial Hospital. Another six months rolled along, and no one contacted her. She called the hospital.
“My name not only moved on the list, it had moved, instead of being 24 in line, I was 35 in line. And I’m like, how is that even possible? After some investigating on my part and their part, it was determined that I was put into the system as a dependent and not as a Marine, not as a combat-wounded veteran. When they saw that I was a woman, it was just assumed that I was dependent.”
Noel finally found her own therapist at a nursing home, where staff worked with stroke patients. She retired from the Marine Corps in 2009. Today she’s busy running an antique store and raising her two sons. DJ is a senior in high school, Robert attends Cape Fear Community College. DJ wants to join the service after graduation. Noel says the mother in her wants him to choose whatever branch makes him happy. But the Marine says she’d be heartbroken if he didn’t choose the Corps.
“I would think that if he did choose to go in the Marine Corps, there’s probably somebody out there that I have positively influenced that’s going to be able to look out for him when he gets to wherever he’s going.”