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From IEDs to Sewing Circles, Securing Iraq

New ROTC instructor Patricia Chapman on Marine training, and gender


U.S. Marine and Iraq War veteran Patricia Chapman will spend the next three years preparing ROTC cadets from BU and other local colleges for Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that traditional lines have broken down — from front lines to the line between male and female soldiers.

More female troops are squeezing off rounds and tackling high-risk missions. They are the faces of drill sergeants who break down and rebuild recruits. They are scouring for roadside explosives and repelling ambushes. They are U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Patricia Chapman, BU’s new ROTC instructor.

During the first of three deployments to Iraq, in 2005, Chapman took part in 87 combat logistics patrols in Anbar province, with Motor Transportation Company, 3rd Transportation Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group. Riding security for resupply convoys, she found herself on the receiving end of small-arms fire and mortar attacks. Her actions earned her the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s 2005 Navy and Marine Association Leadership Award.

On her next stint, from January to September 2006, Chapman headed up a convoy security team, uncovering improvised explosive devices hidden in cracks in the road and inside the bodies of roadkill.

During her last tour, from January 2008 to February 2009, Chapman switched gears, signing on with the Iraqi Women’s Engagement Team, helping empower local women within their communities. It all boils down to demonstrating leadership, says Chapman, a 16-year veteran, and that’s what she hopes to instill in 125 ROTC cadets this year as she readies them for Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va.

BU Today: What prompted you to join the Marine Corps?
I decided to pursue something that was going to get me somewhere, and I always wanted to be a Marine. I wanted do something to really test my abilities, and of course, go to school, as well. I thought about the Air Force, but then I thought, well, if I’m going to do it, I might as well really do it.

You joined the Marine Corps almost 17 years ago. What challenges did you face as a woman?
I’ve never really had a problem being a female in the Marine Corps. There are some women who have. I feel privileged not to have had those issues. The most important thing is maintaining a professionalism where you don’t get yourself into predicaments that you can’t get out of. I always wanted to be treated equally. Just because I’m a female, don’t make excuses. I’m going to do the training regardless. If the Marine Corps didn’t think females could do the same kind of training males could, they wouldn’t have allowed females in.

There’s a bigger percentage of female Marines now. Back then, you were given special privileges. You could get out if you became pregnant, for example. But that’s no longer an option, because a lot of female Marines were doing that. When I was coming up, all the way up to sergeant, I was pretty much the only female Marine in my shop. To see a female staff NCO was very rare.

Tell us about your experience in the war zone.
My first tour I was assistant convoy commander. My second tour we reconned the routes for IEDs (improvised explosive devices). I was always the lead vehicle. That was kind of scary, because if we missed something, it was our vehicle that was probably going to take the blunt force. It was pretty dangerous because the terrorists knew exactly which route we ran. All they had to do was sit back and watch. Eventually, we ran all our routes at night.

How do you defend against such attacks?
We have armored vehicles, and the Marine Corps has devices to counter the signals used to detonate IEDs. The insurgents use generic materials, like garage-door openers. If it was pressure plate, we had people trained to go out and look for those. Sometimes we weren’t so lucky, and we’d hit one.

How do you recon a route?
We’d look for a garbage bag at the side of the road or freshly dug up dirt. A dead animal might have a device inside it. Some things were more difficult. You have a black road and you might have a black wire running in a crease in the road, and running over the wire would trigger the IED.

Were you ever hit?
My vehicle was never hit, but the convoy itself was hit quite a few times. Mainly our lead vehicles, but sometimes our rear vehicles. Many were poorly made IEDs that didn’t pack a lot of punch or weren’t positioned well. We didn’t have any fatalities, but we had injuries.

Are female soldiers finding themselves increasingly on the front lines?
In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is really no front line. Even on base, we weren’t safe, because we’d get incoming mortar rounds. Our motor pool took a couple of rounds when we were prepping for a convoy. The front lines are as soon as you step out the gate.

Women are still limited in what we can do as far as infantry roles. On my second tour, I spent time with an infantry unit that was posted at the entrance to a city known for an al-Qaeda cell and other terror groups. They would use females as smugglers. In Iraqi and Arab culture, no man’s allowed to touch a woman other than her husband, so we searched the women as they went through the checkpoints. Large amounts of cash were one of the biggest things we were looking for. We’d find thousands of dollars, and you knew it was probably going toward IED materials.

On your third tour, you were involved with a civilian empowerment program.
We did an Iraqi women’s outreach. It gave Iraqi women the opportunity to voice their opinions about what they wanted to see happen in their communities. We helped start sewing schools so they could open up their own businesses to sell clothing. We encouraged them to be more active and consider the possibility of holding some type of city council or board member position.

What was the military aim?
Mothers have a lot of influence on their kids. If mothers had a successful job, then their sons wouldn’t need to go out and plant IEDs for $200 to get food for their families. They wouldn’t face the possibility of getting arrested or blowing themselves up in the process. They weren’t doing it because they were terrorists. They were doing it because they needed to support their families. Women have a lot of power when it comes to being able to control the men.

Some women were very hesitant. They’re not used to being in that position. A lot of convincing them was us being out there. They’d see female U.S. Marines and that would be enough.

How did you end up at BU?
I volunteered. I always wanted to do this program. One of the prerequisites is that you have to be a drill instructor. I spent three years in drill instructor school on Parris Island. I did seven platoons. There are quite a few female drill instructors these days, nowhere near as many as male drill instructors, but it’s growing.

What’s the first thing you do with a new recruit?
The most important thing is to break them down. You are no longer an individual. You are part of a team. Together you finish training and graduate as a team. You fight as a team. No one person makes it alone, ever.

And ROTC students?
It’s different. We try to implement accountability, mentoring, and leadership by example. They’re going to be lieutenants, the ones out front barking orders. They have to have confidence, guidance, mentorship. We don’t really need to break them down. We just need a starting point.

Doesn’t sound as exciting as riding shotgun down an Iraqi highway.
It’s different. But I know one day I’ll see these fine lieutenants, and I can say I had a little something to do with what they’ve become.

This Saturday, October 24, the cadets of Boston University’s Division of Military Education will gather on Nickerson Field, 285 Babcock St., for a Pass in Review to celebrate 91 years of ROTC at BU and pay tribute to alumni who have served in the U.S. armed forces. The Pass in Review will showcase more than 250 cadets and midshipmen from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps ROTC programs, and include an Air Force flyover and cannonade salute. U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Ted F. Bowlds will deliver the keynote address. The ceremony starts at 10 a.m.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


2 Comments on From IEDs to Sewing Circles, Securing Iraq

  • Jessica Tanner on 10.23.2009 at 3:10 pm


    im so proud of my aunt!
    i am her niece and i couldnt be more
    proud of her than anything she is the
    best ever and your university is very
    lucky too have her!!

    i love you trish always and forever!! <<<3333

  • James Harrell on 10.29.2009 at 4:57 pm

    Ohh Rahh!

    As a former Devil Dog and BU Alum, it does me good to see experience taking a front seat as opposed to the back seat, especially when it comes to our men and women in uniform.

    I would suspect that you will not see many posts here in regards to this article because of it’s’ context–meaning it is military/ROTC based. My thought, students need to start realizing that their very right to freedom starts with those who volunteer. Not everything has to be politically biased, look at history, most of which started right here in Boston. See it is easy to talk a game and show ones pride by wearing the colors and or fly the flag, but while that is going on, remember, there are those out there who actually prove their loyalty to country by serving.

    GySgt Chapman, if you ever need a lecturer on the subject of IED’s or the counter IED fight, gives me call or email. I was part of Task Force Troy, CEXC that stands for Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell. We are the entity that came up with the rhino, and other defeat methods employed by EOD.

    Congrats on your selection. Semper Fi

    James Harrell (MET’ 09) MCJ
    Former USMC/EOD
    Current Fed

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