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Morale and Mardi Gras 

To bolster spirits, Coast Guard reservist Jennifer Loudermilk and other Louisianians kept a few beads up their sleeves.

Jennifer Loudermilk (second from left)

During her seven-month Coast Guard deployment to Kuwait, Jennifer Loudermilk saw no combat or terrorist attacks in the tiny kingdom on the Persian Gulf. But the lingering horrors of the first Gulf War were soon evident to Loudermilk and six other women reservists assigned to Shuaiba Port Authority, a white, four-story building and a hub of administrative activity for the U.S. military.

In 1990, the building's marble floors were covered with the blood of hundreds of Kuwaiti civilians massacred by invading Iraqi troops led by Saddam Hussein. The facility was refurbished after Kuwait was liberated by an international coalition of forces led by the United States. But 14 years later, Loudermilk says, "It was a creepy building -- especially at night."

Aware of sexual harassment complaints by women in other armed forces stationed overseas, Loudermilk says being a woman was never a problem in Kuwait -- either with Arab men or the male-dominated Coast Guard. She and other women reservists were trained to use the M-16 rifle and the 9mm pistol she kept in her Jeep for "mail runs" to Kuwait's airport. "We were always on guard -- always," she says.

Coast Guard training programs discourage sexual harassment within the ranks, she says. "If you have an issue, your chain of command will take care of you. And there are lot of women at every rank and at every level," she says.

Homesickness was the main enemy for U.S. men and women in Kuwait. Loudermilk saw it as her duty to help keep morale up. Her job included making sure military paychecks and mail were delivered to hundreds of "coasties" living in tent camps in the Kuwaiti desert. She and another female reservists worked 10 hours a day to get packages from home to the troops.

With 12 days left on her tour, Loudermilk and other Louisiana reservists spiced up the standard list of military "morale day" activities (such as movies and cook-outs) with a Mardi Gras parade. The main "float" was a Boston whaler bearing the Coast Guard insignia and a crew of costumed reservists. A truck pulled the boat around the desert camp. The "float riders" threw thick bunches of imported Carnival beads (sent from New Orleans) to cheering troops. Loudermilk returned home in March and after eight years in the USCG, she resigned. She now lives in Slidell with her husband, and is a civilian employee of the Coast Guard's 8th District headquarters in New Orleans. Loudermilk says she joined the Coast Guard at age 17 because it was promoted as the best service for women. "And I still believe that to this day," she says.

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