- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

Female troops

in Iraq shot at

and shoot back

She broke down the doors of Iraqi arms dealers in house-to-house raids in Fallujah. She seized caches of weapons and took prisoners. She fired her machine gun from a Humvee and came under fire while wearing the uniform of the U.S. military.

But the Department of Defense won’t say Sgt. Maria Freudigmann was in combat.

Under a federal policy, only men are allowed in front-line combat on the ground. Women can join “combat support” units that are supposed to be farther away from the front line.

In Iraq, however, the distinction between the two types of duty is blurred. In this war, there is no real front line. Violence can break out anytime, anywhere.

Women are coming under fire and are shooting back. They are getting killed. One won a Silver Star for valor in May.

Sgt. Freudigmann fought alongside the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division combat troops while serving in Fallujah with the Rhode Island National Guard’s 115th Military Police Company.

Still, the Pentagon doesn’t call her work — or that of other female soldiers in similar jobs — combat, denying them the designation that has long been a point of pride for military men.

Asked whether women are in combat in Iraq, Maj. Michael Shavers, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said Iraq is a war with an increasingly “asymmetrical battlefield” without the distinction of a clear front line or rear.

Are women in combat?

“I’m going to stick with my original comment,” he said.

Why not just say women are in combat?

“We’re acknowledging that there is a reality where there is not a clear delineation between being in the front line, engaged with the enemy, and in the rear in this current conflict,” he said.

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has traveled to Iraq five times. He said the Pentagon’s response is based more on “terminology than reality.”

“There are insurgents hitting willy-nilly across the countryside. Women face essentially the same dangers as their male counterparts,” Mr. Reed said.

Sgt. Freudigmann, 25, of North Providence, R.I., is sure she saw combat as a gunner in the 115th Military Police unit.

“Oh, definitely,” she said.

She has pictures to prove it: her lieutenant’s Humvee, its window shattered by gunfire; piles of mortar tubes and weapons she seized in pre-dawn raids in Fallujah; men lying facedown in the sand, their hands tied behind their backs.

“These are prisoners we took,” she said.

Her company served 87 days in Fallujah, helping combat troops fight rebels. While her two teammates were inside the unarmored Humvee, Sgt. Freudigmann rode on top, in the turret, manning an M-249 machine gun.

She helped her company complete 572 raids and seize 125,000 rounds of ammunition, 60 vehicles and 7 million in Iraqi dinars from those suspected of being insurgents.

“Those were crazy days with a lot of raids and combat operations and females on every one of them,” said Lt. Jeffrey Floyd, who was a platoon leader with the 115th. “She took fire several times and returned fire.”

Although women always have fought and died in wars, the Defense Department has kept women out of ground direct-combat jobs. In 1994, the Pentagon adopted a policy stating that females would not be allowed in infantry, field artillery, special forces or other units that engage the enemy on the ground. Women are allowed in aviation combat and on warships.

But in Iraq, the military has been less able to keep women off the front lines for several reasons. First, the war is not traditional: The rear line is Kuwait, and the front line is anywhere in Iraq, including highways. Second, in Iraq, there are more women because the Marines and the Army opened many more military jobs to women after the Persian Gulf War.

In the 1991 Gulf War, which was a more conventional war, the distinction between combat and combat-support troops worked well. Support troops worked behind the front line.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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