American military women saw their most extensive combat action ever in a major war in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But their expanded role has not spurred calls in Congress to open up even more combat roles to women, as happened after Desert Storm 12 years ago. Both the Senate and House armed services committees, which write military laws and policies, passed 2004 defense authorization bills this spring without any amendments debated or passed to expand women’s war missions.
“I think that the stories you’ve seen and what you hear from commanders is that women did their jobs and did them very well, working side by side with men,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter, who is chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. “And my answer is, what else would you expect? This is what they were trained to do.”
The Defense Department has yet to collect statistics on pregnancies and injuries in the field to give some indication of whether more women in combat puts stress on unit readiness. Some legislators also want to look at the effects mothers going to war have on children.
“We don’t know for sure what the results were from this mobilization regarding women because nobody has asked questions, much less gotten the answers,” said Elaine Donnelly, who directs the Center for Military Readiness.
Gen. Mutter said her committee plans to look at all issues of overseas deployments, including the impact on families, as the military fights the war on terrorism.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom, women’s missions did not involve ground combat, from which they are banned. But they flew combat jets and helicopters, and operated warships, for the first time in a major air-ground campaign.
The Marine Corps saw the first female Cobra helicopter pilot fly combat missions. They also saw one of their enlisted woman give birth in a war zone aboard a combat ship — an event Pentagon officials said was a first.
Hundreds of Navy women manned warships, including five aircraft carriers. Two female officers commanded warships — one a Tomahawk-firing destroyer and the other an amphibious assault ship carrying Marine Harrier attack jets.
Women also flew the Navy’s two carrier fighters, the F-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat.
“It’s gotten to the point where they are a part of everything,” said a senior Navy officer at the Pentagon.
The Air Force had women flying virtually every combat plane in its arsenal, including the B-2 stealth bomber, the B-52, the A-10 low-flying attack jet, and the service’s front-line fighters, the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon.
Even female aviators on Air Force refueling jets found themselves closer to combat. Air commanders pushed the fleet to get as close to strike fighters as possible to cut down on travel time to and from targets.
Capt. Tricia Paulsen-Howe, a navigator on a KC-135, flew for hours over hostile territory, refueling planes and searching for the two crew members of a downed F-15E north of Baghdad.
“We supported all of the search aircraft,” Capt. Paulsen-Howe said in an interview. “On that particular day, we were refueling F-16s and F-15s that were actively searching. We went well out of our air-refueling air space to go north of Baghdad to be right there so the fighters would not have to fly very far to get gas. It was extremely hostile territory.”
Despite more women in combat slots, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a safer place statistically, compared with the last major air-ground war, 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. In that war, which lasted longer and involved twice as many U.S. troops, 16 women died.
In Iraqi Freedom, the lone female fatality was Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23. She was among 11 members of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company ambushed March 23 in the central Iraq town of Nasiriyah.
In all, 25,455 military women were deployed out of a total reserve and active force of 269,363, according to the Defense Department. It was roughly the same ratio as Desert Storm, where 41,000 women deployed amid a force of 550,000.
In addition to air and sea combat jobs, woman served in virtually every support role, including patrolling Baghdad’s streets as military police officers.
The expanded combat roles were made possible thanks to changes made by the Clinton administration in 1994. Prompted by the big contribution women made in Desert Storm, the Clinton Pentagon opened two war-fighting jobs previously closed to women: flying combat fighters, bombers and helicopters, and staffing warships, except for the tight confines of submarines.
“In the Gulf war, women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft, and now they are,” Capt. Paulsen-Howe said. “I would say there’s hardly a career field in the Air Force women are not involved in. There are a few. But we do just about every single job.”
The ambush of the 507th vehicle convoy of some 30 soldiers is one incident that likely will be cited by pro- and anti-women-in-combat forces.
As a support unit, its male and female members attended mixed-sex basic training. Some groups such as Mrs. Donnelly’s contend the Army has lowered physical training standards to make sure women complete boot camp.
Advocates will want to know how well the 507th members were trained in basic combat skills and whether they were up to date in weapons training.
The Army has been conducting an inquiry into the ambush to determine how the company performed. Its report is due out shortly.
The combat arms section of the Army — armor, infantry and artillery — are closed to women. Men train in male-only units.
Mrs. Donnelly said a unit such as the 507th should be all-male because it typically moves close to combat, and, on March 23, drove right into it.
“What they need to do is restore the single-gender basic training,” she said.
Mrs. Donnelly wants President Bush to rescind the decision to put women in combat.
“It’s not right to subject women to combat violence unnecessarily,” she added.
When asked about the subject last month, the president punted to the Pentagon.
“The configuration of our force and who ought to be fighting where — that’s going to be up to the generals,” he said. “That’s how we run our business here in the White House. We set the strategy and we rely upon our military to make the judgments necessary to achieve the strategy.”
The White House also has no plans to change mixed-sex boot camps, which the Army and Navy initiated in the early 1990s. The Air Force has trained that way since the 1970s. The Marine Corps separates men and women for basic training.