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Women on the Front Lines

With 240 female U.S. soldiers injured and 33 killed so far in Iraq and Afghanistan, some military analysts are calling for a review of U.S. policy on women in combat.
 
 
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It struck Lori Piestewa of Tuba City, Ariz. when her Humvee crashed and she was captured in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

It hit Pamela Osbourne of Fort Hood, Texas, when a bomb targeted her camp in southern Baghdad.

It struck Kimberly Voelz of Carlisle, Pa., when she was defusing explosives in the town of al-Iskandariyah.

Death has claimed a record number of female soldiers serving in the U.S. military in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite rules that have prohibited women from fighting on the front lines, female soldiers in these conflicts are facing virtually the same risks as men because of the nature of these missions and because of overall troop shortages in Iraq, some military analysts say. In light of this – and in response to charges that the military has failed to adequately protect its female soldiers – the House Armed Services Committee is preparing a report on the feasibility of assigning women to combat-related positions.

The forthcoming report – due this spring – has stirred debate on how female soldiers should serve alongside men and whether the military can and should uphold rules meant to minimize women's risks.

"These rules no longer make sense because no place is safe in Iraq," said former Congressional Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., who served on the House Armed Services Committee from 1973 to 1996. "The whole place is literally a front line."

Record Number of Injuries, Fatalities

According to U.S. military records, 33 female soldiers – three in Afghanistan and 30 in Iraq – have been killed since operations started in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

In addition, 240 women have sustained combat-related wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan. Left with permanent injuries that have sometimes required amputation, most of these women – like those killed – were struck by bombs that hit transport units or camps with no warning.

"We don't track the number of women soldiers wounded by U.S. forces in friendly fire," said Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty. "But these accidents don't happen often."

The death and injury toll for female soldiers in the current conflicts shatters previous records for women serving in positions that are also shared by men. In the Gulf War – the first major conflict where women soldiers served alongside male soldiers – 216,000 women were enlisted and 16 were killed. In Iraq and Afghanistan, only 17,000 female soldiers are enlisted. But their deaths account for 33 of the 1,000 estimated fatalities among servicewomen in U.S. history. To date, nearly all of these fatalities have been among female nurses and support staff.

"Having this many female casualties in uniform is certainly new," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst for The Brookings Institution in Washington. "It has made this policy debate more visible and more visceral."

Women More Active in Military

Historians estimate that only 20,000 American women have fought in battle since Margaret Corbin hoisted her petticoats and took charge of a canon after her husband fell in the Revolutionary War.

Since the creation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, women have been employed directly by the military. But until recent decades, most have served as nurses and support staff. That started to change in the Korean War during the early 1950s, when the military began accepting women for active duty.

In 1992 the Air Force began allowing female pilots to fly in some combat missions. In 1993 the Navy started allowing women to serve on combat ships. In 1994 the Army dropped a rule prohibiting women from filling positions with a "substantial risk of capture." These changes opened up 90 percent of military jobs to women for the first time.

"From this point onward, women were not only trained to use arms, but could also fire them on the job," said retired Air Force Capt. Barbara Wilson, founder of Military Women Veterans in St. Augustine, Fla.

Today, female soldiers take infantry training alongside their male companions, learning how to fire assault weapons and move under direct and indirect fire. Accounting for 15 percent of all service people and 10 percent of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, women work as engineers, truck drivers, pilots and weapons experts.

Two prohibitions hold female troops back from full parity. They are barred from positions that involve direct combat (such as serving on submarines, in the Special Forces and in infantry, armor and artillery positions). They are also barred from "collocated units" that support combat troops. A woman can serve as a medic, for instance, but not as a medic in a unit that "collocates" or supports a unit on the front line.

Allegations Against Army

The Army is covertly violating its collocation rule and assigning women to units that support front-line troops, says Elaine Donnelley, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a public policy organization in Livonia, Mich. Donnelley contends this is because commanders are failing to follow established regulations and because an overall male troop shortage means there is a lack of adequate male troops in Iraq.

Last year, in response to a petition Donnelly sent to President Bush and the Pentagon, Army Secretary Francis Harvey ordered a systematic review of Army regulations and asserted that current policies keeping women out of combat and collocated units will stand.

But last month, under continued pressure from Donnelley and other critics, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee ordered an investigation into whether collocated units in Iraq violate Pentagon regulations against same-sex service.

"This is a serious question and we hope to have an answer soon," said Committee Chair Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

While waiting for the release of this report, expected this spring, the Army maintains that is upholding established policy. "We're not violating the collocation rule," Hilferty told Women's eNews. "We are conforming with 1994 regulations, and any changes to that policy will be coordinated with Congress as required by law."

Are Women Fit for Combat?

According to a 2001 Gallup poll, the U.S. public is split on whether women should fight on the battlefield, with a slim majority supporting the assignment of women to ground combat.

As the debate on women in combat continues, the Bush administration has not set a firm date for withdrawing from Iraq. Retired Lt. Gen. Claudia J. Kennedy, the highest-ranking woman to ever serve in the Army, predicts that as the conflict continues, more female soldiers will be called up for active duty. She notes that military recruiting is down by 27 percent, and estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 more soldiers may be needed in Iraq.

"Regardless of whether the military changes its policy on women in combat, we need to honor the women who are serving in this conflict," says Kennedy. "Willing to step outside traditional roles and answer their country's call, they are vital to this mission and should not be segregated. Women soldiers deserve to be treated just as all soldiers should be treated – properly trained, properly equipped and given the proper respect."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.