"Why are the drill sergeants so weird to us?" Clarizza Paz remembers asking the few other women in her class.
Paz was part of the first co-ed basic training group for the U.S. Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. She later was deployed to war zones in Afghanistan before the U.S. government officially allowed women in combat.
"We don't know what to do with y'all," she was told. Years later, as she continued her service with the Army, she found that to be true everywhere she turned.
Paz enlisted in the Army in 2010. At the time, she had no good reason to join. She was a 23-year-old military spouse with a 5-year-old daughter, a bachelor's degree, and a retail management job in Alaska that paid better than the Army.
Growing up in Texas, she'd wanted to serve since before graduating high school, but the military hadn't been kind to her family members. "When my sister decided to join (the U.S. Air Force) she was going to be a single parent. Her leadership was giving her negativity toward her pregnancy," Paz said.
Instead, Paz had a baby, went to college, and got married. She had reached several life milestones before revisiting her military dreams and realizing she wasn't fulfilled by civilian life.
"There was a lot of casualties and I was like, no, I want to join, this is what I want to do."
Paz landed in Oklahoma for basic training. When she arrived at her first duty station in Fort Drum, New York, it was a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the same state that led to the war she'd find herself in.
She landed in a transportation role and trained extensively for a job that she almost didn't get to perform.
"At the time, not all fields were open to women," Paz said. Despite her training and status, she found herself left out of critical missions. "I was supposed to be on a team that provided advisement to the Afghanistan forces, and because I was a woman, they took me off the team," Paz said.
Eventually, she did deploy. In 2013, she arrived in eastern Afghanistan toward the tail end of Operation Enduring Freedom. Her daughter was 8 and by then, she'd gotten divorced and remarried to another Army vet, who she's still with today.
While much of the carnage of the War on Terror predated her arrival, her company still faced constant attacks.
"We were mortared daily," she said. "That place was getting more mortar fire and toward the end of August (2013) the Taliban came in, and they were wearing uniforms from local forces. There was a suicide vest, and they were trying to get to a specific spot to blow everybody up."
One person in her batallion died in the incident.
She was one of several soldiers who later showed signs of traumatic brain injury following the attack.
Paz remembers constantly being critical of her own performance, but by the end of her nearly nine-month mission, she and her partner, a noncommissioned officer, were able to manage logistics and transfer two separate sites in Afghanistan.
Paz did her job so well, by the time she left the Middle East, she earned a Bronze Star for her merits and service in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
In 2014, she was gearing up for another deployment, but found out she was pregnant with her second daughter. Paz stayed in active duty, working her way up to senior fleet manager before going back to school for her master's degree. She was eventually became a captain and worked as a human resources assistant and Family Readiness Program manager.
Despite her success, in 2017, while recovering from childbirth and being unable to wear tactical gear, she was medically separated from the Army.
"We're always picking that battle," she said from her home in Tigard. "I volunteer for different veterans mentor groups and this topic comes up all the time. We have to pick. We could be at the top of our game, but the moment we say we're pregnant or would like to have a kid within the next three years, it's like, oh, well, you're gonna be out of the game. You have a lot of senior (ranked) women who choose to have their first child well into their 40s because they have to keep going."
Despite her departure, she's proud of her service and decisions, saying if she had to, "I'd do it all over again."
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