Alicia Perry has had her head in the clouds for as long as she can remember. She speaks passionately about the wonders of flying.

"I really enjoy being in control of the aircraft and being up there," she said. "It's just a whole different view of the world."

One gray morning this fall, the 24-year-old recent college graduate took a step closer to realizing her dream when she climbed the steps of a waiting C-130 cargo plane and became part of a crew from the 934th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve, bound for Afghanistan.

The 120-day deployment was the first for the senior airman. No doubt, she was the only member of the crew heading overseas with a new purple tote stuffed with playing cards and the latest exercise magazines, courtesy of her boss back home, Master Sgt. Shirley Smith.

Perry's tour of duty is beginning at a time when the U.S. military, having learned hard lessons over the past decade about the role of women in combat zones and the perils and frustrations they face even from their fellow troops, is enhancing services for female soldiers and vowing to better police how they are treated.

The military is expanding its gynecological and maternity care and instituting new programs for parenting and care giving. Faced with jolting statistics that show female soldiers have double the rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder of their male counterparts, military officials also say they are being more aggressive in looking for signs of trouble during a deployment, including new initiatives for reporting sexual assault.

Women have served in every war and conflict since the American Revolution, but their numbers and roles have grown significantly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing new challenges and opportunities.

14% of active-duty force

Women now represent more than 14 percent of the active-duty force and 17.5 percent of the National Guard and Reserves. They are assigned to more than 80 percent of all military specialities and they work in more than 90 percent of military career fields. Women also make up 20 percent of new military recruits.

Perry is one of 17,575 women in the Air Force Reserve, one of 3,000 women in her rank/grade, and one of 2,239 women in the operations career.

She was one of a handful of female airmen -- everyone in the Air Force is an airman, no matter the gender -- making the trip to Afghanistan this fall and, in her three years serving in the Air Force Reserve, she said she has never felt her gender factored into her treatment.

Perry had completed her physical fitness test, received her medical shots and qualified in her weapons training. Before she left for overseas duty, as she made her way through a supply line to complete her deployment equipment, she was handed the same clothing and given the same disquieting warning to be careful with the plates for her newly acquired body armor because they could break if dropped.

Stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Perry will work in aviation resource management -- military speak for tracking crew members' training, flight hours and aircraft logs. When she returns home, she has been accepted into flight school and officer training school, requirements to reach her goal of flying C-130s.

"Women have the same opportunities as men, you just have to be competitive and want it," she said. "They don't have to have a certain number of female pilots. You just compete the same way."

Adjustment period

Two months into her deployment, Perry admitted it took several weeks to adjust to her new surroundings and her schedule. She recently had her first day off and found the time hard to fill. The living situation also was hard to get accustomed to -- being in such close quarters with others and having little privacy.

"It's tough being over here, spending the holidays away from home, but everyone is in the same boat, and it's not like we are completely alone," she said in an e-mail. "I am proud to make the sacrifice of being away and am truly thankful for the opportunity to serve for a country that allows my family and friends to live freely."

She intends to make the Air Force her career, and the large cargo planes appeal to her.

"They can do a lot of missions, they can get in and out of places as compared to bigger planes," she said. "I like that you have to fly with a team, whereas with a fighter you have to fly by yourself."

A twin brother is also in the Air Force and was commissioned an officer after completing Reserve Officer Training Corps in college. She was the first enlisted airman to salute him.

Her parents, Lori and James Perry of Wabasha, were there as she made her final goodbyes and walked out onto the tarmac to the waiting planes. They said they were comforted knowing that her work isn't likely to take her directly into harm's way.

"She's probably as safe as she can be when she's over there," Lori Perry said. "The biggest thing is that we'll miss her. It's a long way away. I just hope that she's safe and she's in good hands. It's what she wants to do, fly. We totally support her. She's got a tough couple of years coming up but she'll get through it."

For James Perry, it's hard to think of the little girl who once played with Barbies becoming an adult flying off to war. But it is just as hard to imagine his son going from sporting blue hair and an earring to expressing interest in the ROTC and then embracing the military.

"We didn't send them off, they chose to do it, they wanted to do it," he said. "If anything, I think the military has gotten a little more politically correct all the way around. As far as preferential treatment, I don't think so."

Lori Perry laughed when she was asked if she had concerns about her daughter choosing a career in such a male-dominated field.

"You haven't been in the rest of the world if you don't think it's male-dominated," she said.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434