Mona Iskander

Women in the Line of Fire

On a hot April morning in southern Iraq last year, 1st Lt. Adrien Thom prepared for the journey toward Baghdad.

It was the day before the ground offensive on the city and she would lead a platoon of 15 Marines on a support mission for advancing troops. The mission required that she travel alongside ground combat divisions; a move that was against Marine Corps policies that prohibit women from participating in direct ground combat operations.

But Thom said her commander told her to go ahead and that she was just as capable as any man.

Thom, a 26-year-old combat engineer from Louisiana, sat in the passenger seat of the front truck, a map in one hand, a phone in the other and a radio next to her as the convoy rolled past burning buses, abandoned military vehicles, big pits of burning oil. Several hours later, as they approached their destination near Baghdad, Thom's convoy lost touch with the other Marines who were supposed to meet and take them to the location. She quickly stopped the convoy and ordered all trucks to turn off their headlights. She didn't let the convoy move again until – after what seemed like an eternity – a commander from another company came to lead them to safety.

During the next few days, frequent fire fights broke out between Iraqi insurgents and the combat Marines with whom she stayed. Incoming mortar rounds could be heard from every direction. It was a chaotic scene.

But months later, as she reflected on her experience, Thom smiled at the chance her commander had given her to move up to the "front lines" of combat.

"I'm thankful for what he did," she said back at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where she lives and is currently training for a second deployment later this month. "I didn't want to give up my position to a guy just because I'm a girl. I know I'm just as capable as them."

Thom's experience in Iraq provides a snapshot of just how close some women were to combat areas at the opening stages of the war. And often, as in Thom's case, decisions were made on the battlefield, not by the book.

Many experts say that the war in Iraq has become yet another major milestone for women in the military as they entered into more leadership positions in many of the most volatile areas.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught is founder of Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, an organization dedicated to documenting women's roles in the military, which is based in Washington, D.C.

"You've got more women carrying weapons with the possibility that they'll use them to fight or defend themselves," Vaught said in a phone interview. "That's one of the big differences between this war and others. Women haven't done this type of war before."

The "front line" of combat often took place along the highways and roads where support and supply units made regular trips. The majority of women in the military serve within these combat-support positions and so, they were armed, trained and prepared to confront the ever-possible roadside attacks and ambushes.

Army Sgt. Tashika Starling, a 30-year-old reservist from Long Island, is one of these women.

"I drove a truck with jet fuel so it was basically like a moving bomb on wheels and we were shot at with mortar rounds," said Starling, of the dozens of highway trips she took during her eight-month deployment. "If it would have hit our truck, then we'd be bye-bye."

Her mission was much like that of the better-known Army soldiers Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson, who were wounded during the war, and Lori Piestewa, who died in combat. All of whom were ambushed in their convoy.

There is still no official count of how many women served in Iraq but as of November 2003, according to the Department of Defense pay records, a total of 59,742 women have served or currently serve "in theater," meaning in Iraq and the countries involved in the U.S. military operation called "Enduring Freedom," which includes Afghanistan.

Twenty-two women have died as of June 2004. Sixteen of these deaths resulted from combat-related incidents from gunshots, explosions or other attacks.

Some in the military say these incidents occurred not only because of the high number of guerilla tactics in Iraq, but also from the fact that women have become more integrated into the structure of command.

"It showed that everybody's out there and there's no such thing as a rear-echelon person anymore," said 39-year-old Army Lt. Col. John Gillette, who served as a fire support coordinator for the Main Command Post in Iraq. "It kind of made the country wake up and realize that every soldier is out there and in harm's way and capable of fighting."

The First Gulf War was a major turning point for women in the military. It was during this period that the military and the American public realized that many of the more than 40,000 women stationed in the Gulf served closer to combat than ever before. Even though the Department of Defense had a "risk rule" in place to keep women out of combat areas, the war played out very differently in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"They found out that even with women in the rear (supply units), women were still at risk, so the rule was no longer relevant or viable," said retired three-star Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter. "So policies really had to change."

And they did. In 1994, Defense Secretary Leslie Aspin announced new criteria governing women's services in combat areas. The wording of a 1988 "risk rule" was amended so that women could be eligible for all positions "except those below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat."

This meant that women would no longer be excluded from positions simply because they were deemed too dangerous or unsafe. But women were still not allowed to serve in the most direct ground combat positions including artillery, infantry, tanks and Special Forces.

More than 250,000 positions opened up to women in the armed services. At their present number – more than 212,000 – they represent about 15 percent of the active duty armed forces.

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