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U.S. military women serving in Saudi Arabia

By Wolf Blitzer

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American military women are following Saudi custom of head-to-toe robes when off-base. CNN's Wolf Blitzer reports (December 19)
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- It's a little sliver of America in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula.

For the American military women serving here at the U.S. section of the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, life is no different than it is back home.

I asked Brig. Gen. Dale Waters of the U.S. Air Force about the roles and experiences of the women who serve here. "We have women in the wing. They do their jobs just like the men. We haven't had any problems."

But that's only when they are on base. When they're off base, all bets are off.

That's because of the strict Saudi religious traditions that guide the way women must dress and behave in public.

Dr. Abdullah al-Lheedan, an associate professor at King Saud University, explains, "If the women go without a veil at all, people will notice and feel offended, and that's why the government here insists that the non-Muslim wears the minimum requirement of hijab to cover the whole body except the face and the hands."

Back at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, the war against Iraq has already begun. U.S. pilots based here are dodging Iraqi fire on an almost daily basis.

Those F-15 and F-16 pilots often wouldn't be in the air over southern Iraq if it weren't for U.S. Air Force Capt. Laura Lenderman. A graduate of Duke University and a 9-year Air Force pilot, she flies KC-135 tankers which refuel warplanes in midair -- a most delicate and dangerous mission.

It's a mission for which she and her fellow service members are prepared. "We are ready," she told me. "This is what we train to do. And we are ready to do it."

Here's the irony: Capt. Lenderman can fly these sophisticated aircraft over Saudi Arabia but off-base, she's not allowed to drive or even sit in the front seat of a car.

That's why the American women serving at Prince Sultan for all practical purposes, hardly ever leave the base.

They don't have to stay on base but they do. We heard that repeatedly. The few who leave the base adhere to local restrictions. One service woman told me, "If we have people that go downtown, they wear burkas or the abeyahs and try to respect the traditions."

A lawsuit filed by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally earlier this year forced the Pentagon to drop the requirement that women in the military serving in Saudi Arabia wear those traditional Muslim garments when they're off base.

But it doesn't appear to have made a significant practical difference. For nearly all American women visiting or working in Saudi Arabia, it's hard to go against local restrictions -- as my CNN producers, Linda Roth, Carrie Conner and Alex Quade quickly discovered.

"I feel by respecting the customs of the country, I feel more comfortable by looking like everyone else who lives here," said Roth. Carrie Conner had a slightly different perspective: "In a way you feel like you don't exist. No one is looking at you. It's very different from America where people look at you to see what you are wearing or just to recognize you."

Regardless, the American women serving at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia have a job to do -- and they do it.

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