"I knew what I was getting into when I joined the Navy three years ago, but naturally I'm nervous," said sailor Lill Mortensen the day she shipped out for the Persian Gulf.
Mortensen, 24, is one of 10 female sailors in the 100-person crew aboard the corvette Olfert Fischer, sent to Middle East waters to help enforce a U.N.-ordered embargo on trade with Iraq.Norway, Belgium, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands are the only countries that assign women to offensive combat positions in their armed forces. For the five NATO members, the gulf crisis could provide the first test of that policy.
"Of course it's hard on the family to have to say goodbye," said Mortensen. "And luckily my boyfriend and I are used to being separated. He's a submariner."
In addition to the 10 Danes, there are 24 women on board a Dutch frigate that sailed for the gulf last month, and 30 on the destroyer Protecteur, which Canada sent to join the international armada.
American women, though they make up 10 percent of the military's personnel, are restricted to non-combat roles.
Danish laws enacted in the 1960s mandated sexual equality in the labor market and opened the way for women in the military. But it wasn't until 1988 that women were allowed to train for combat and join fighting units.
Air force Capt. Sussie Rasmussen calls sexual harassment or discrimination in the military "no worse than one finds in other work places where women are introduced for the first time."
Only two all-male bastions remain in Denmark's military - the cockpit of a jet fighter and aboard a submarine.
In Norway, women are assigned to submarines. There are Dutch female fighter pilots, and there are no restrictions on Belgian women's combat positions.
"When it comes to a `your life or mine' situation, the female survival instinct is just as strong as the male's."