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Skilled Soldier

Gender not a factor in tale of Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 4:59 a.m. CST

(MCT) — Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a hunter.

She tracked men and she killed them. And no woman was ever better at it.

She’d hide under bushes in the snow. Or she’d find a burned-out building and watch in the gray rubble in the cold, waiting for enemy soldiers.

And when she’d see them, she’d put her scope on them from a distance, put the cross hairs right on their heads or chests, and pull the trigger.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, hero of the Soviet Union, was a sniper, credited with an astounding 309 kills during World War II.

A reader called my radio show Thursday to tell me about her. I checked up on her and was amazed.

Of course, she wasn’t around this week, when the Obama administration an-nounced it would allow Amer-ican women into infantry combat.

“The reality is that women have been engaged in combat (for years),” said U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois Democrat who lost both her legs while piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq in 2004. It was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed.

“You don’t get to become a general usually without, at least, a brigade command of a combat-armed unit,” she said. “Women were denied that avenue even though they were perfectly capable of doing the job.”

That’s the political view, one that uses combat for the purposes of climbing a ladder to power.

An alternate view was offered last year by Marine Capt. Katie Petronio, a weightlifter and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Petronio questioned whether it is wise policy to integrate all combat units.

“There was a time I joined the Marine Corps and thought, ‘Heck, I’m strong,’” she said. “This last deployment really hit home for me. I went from breaking school records to being broken in a short amount of time.

“I left a seven-month deployment 17 pounds lighter. I had muscle atrophy. I stopped producing estrogen, which, for me, caused me to have infertility. And I was only doing a portion of what my infantry brethren were doing.”

The benefits to the political actors who’ve crafted this policy will depend on how America reacts to American women soldiers being paraded around in some pit like Mogadishu if they’re captured.

Meanwhile, military types are wondering how to mesh gender politics with the military’s main job: killing people and breaking things.

I figure that if American women want the infantry, they should be allowed in, just as long as stringent physical standards from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division to the Navy SEALs aren’t ever diluted and shaped to accommodate the politics of gender.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko ran up against gender politics when, already a celebrated killer, she toured the U.S. in 1942.

“I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington,” she complained to Time magazine. “They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder and rouge and nail polish and do I curl my hair?

“One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat. This made me angry. I wear my uniform with honor.

“It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

But now, they’ve learned it with blood. About 150 women in the U.S. armed forces have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pavlichenko was a teenager from Ukraine. She could shoot. And she didn’t want to become a nurse.

According to “Out of Nowhere: A History of the Military Sniper” by Martin Pegler, her superiors suggested nursing was good for girls.

“I joined the Army at a time when women were not yet accepted — I had the option of becoming a nurse but I refused,” she said.

Pavlichenko was one of thousands of women snipers trained by the Soviets during that time. She joined the Red Army’s 25th Infantry Division. Her first kill came when a friend of hers, a young man, was shot in the stomach by Hitler’s troops.

“God couldn’t stop me,” she said, and in just 10 months she scored an astounding 187 confirmed kills. According to Pegler’s book — and many others written about Pavlichenko and the Soviet female snipers — she had a singular subspecialty:

Countersniping.

She’d hunt the hunters.

By the time she was done, more than 300 soldiers were dead.

After recovering from mortar wounds, she visited America, met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later received an engraved Winchester.

Woody Guthrie, like others of the left in thrall with the Soviets during the war, wrote a song about her, “In summer’s heat or winter’s snow / In all kinds of weather she tracks down the foe.”

She also visited Chicago in 1942, and an unfortunate Chicago Tribune article referred to the then-26-year-old as the famed “girl sniper.” It mentioned her crimson fingernail polish.

But it wasn’t what was on her fingers that counted.

It was what was under them, particularly the trigger under her index finger, that mattered.

And that had nothing to do with gender.

———

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at jskass@tribune.com.
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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