- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004


Female American troops in Iraq have killed Iraqis with bombs and bullets. They’ve won medals for valor and Purple Hearts for combat wounds. They’ve been captured as prisoners of war, killed by enemy fire and buried as heroes in Arlington National Cemetery.

American women have participated more extensively in combat in Iraq than in any previous war. They’ve taken on roles nearly inconceivable just a decade or two ago — flying fighter jets and attack helicopters, patrolling streets armed with automatic weapons and commanding units of mostly male soldiers. Seven have been killed in combat.

Yet all this has gone largely without much comment in Washington, despite the attention given to rescued POW Jessica Lynch.

Congress debated the issue of women in the military after the 1991 Gulf war, voting months later to loosen the 1948 ban on women in combat. The issue hasn’t come up on Capitol Hill during this war, however.

“It doesn’t seem to be a big deal,” said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, who tracks military issues for the Women’s Research and Education Institute.

“We could not do what needs to be done over there without women. If there needs to be a body search of an Iraqi woman, there’s no way an American male could do that.”

Military women in Iraq say they are doing their jobs just like their male colleagues. Sgt. Erin Edwards, 23, often travels in armed convoys as part of her work as an aide to a commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit.

Sgt. Edwards left her 3-year-old son and infant daughter with her in-laws to serve in Iraq because her husband serves in the Army in South Korea.

“I would love to be at home with my kids, but I’m doing this for them. I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” Sgt. Edwards said recently.

Opponents of women in combat haven’t resigned themselves to this turn of events. They’re trying to pressure President Bush to reinstate restrictions on women serving in support units that travel close to the front lines, such as Miss Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company, which was ambushed in Nasiriyah. That unit included the first American woman soldier killed in the Iraq war, Pfc. Lori Piestewa.

Six other female soldiers have died in Iraq since October: Pfc. Analaura Esperaza Gutierrez, Pfc. Rachel Bosveld, Pfc. Karina Lau, Spec. Frances Vega, Chief Warrant Officer Sharon T. Swartworth and Staff Sgt. Kimberly Voelz.

Elaine Donnelly, an opponent of women in combat who is spearheading a petition drive on the issue, said she believes it’s important that women not be put in danger of being captured and raped. Medical records indicate Miss Lynch was sodomized while in Iraqi captivity, but she has said she does not remember it.

“If we are opposed to violence against women at the Air Force and other service academies, why all of a sudden if violence happens at the hands of the enemy, we say it doesn’t matter?” said Miss Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which claims more than 20,000 signatures on the petition. “That’s a step backward for civilization, not a step forward.”

Pentagon officials said they do not keep track of the number of women serving in Iraq. Overall, 15 percent of active-duty troops and 17 percent of National Guard and reserve forces are women.

Acting on the 1991 law allowing greater roles for women, the Pentagon loosened restrictions on women’s military service in 1994. The new rules allow women to become combat pilots and take other jobs that previously were off-limits.

The military retained some restrictions: Army women still can’t serve in front-line infantry, tank or artillery units, and Navy women can’t serve on submarines or in the SEAL special forces units, for example.

But the conflict in Iraq, like other modern wars, has blurred the line between combat and non-combat units.

Women can serve as military police, which patrol Iraqi cities and often have been involved in fighting with Iraqi insurgents. Supply convoys and troop transports often include female soldiers and have been the targets of repeated attacks by anti-American forces.

“Women MPs in Iraq and Afghanistan are as much on the front line as they can be,” said Miss Manning, the retired Navy officer. “I’d say if they have the mental and physical toughness to do that, they have the physical strength to be in the infantry.”

Female soldiers, particularly MPs on patrol, have drawn curious crowds of Iraqis who marvel at the idea of women in uniform. Sgt. Edwards said Iraqi women are particularly interested.

“When women look at you, they just smile,” Sgt. Edwards said, her M-16 rifle slung over one shoulder. Others, however, “won’t even look at you. It’s like they’re not allowed.”

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