In Iraq war, women would serve closer to front lines than in past

Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON - The tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Apache and Kiowa helicopters have been shipped out. Now, the 12,000 men and women of the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood in Texas, the Army's most lethal heavy combat division, are saying goodbye and preparing their families for their deployment to the Persian Gulf region.

"Just like everyone else, I'm excited and a little nervous," says Capt. Shoshannah Jenni of Ocean City, N.J.

Jenni, a West Point graduate, is among the growing pool of women who have chosen military careers. But at 25, the Kiowa Warrior pilot is also part of a newer and more exclusive club: women in positions, many of them combat-related, that until recently had been restricted to men.

Changes in law and policy since the Persian Gulf war have opened up thousands more positions to women. In Iraq, women would serve in greater numbers, closer to front-line combat and more integrated into core operations than in any previous U.S. military conflict.

Unlike the gulf war of 1991, women would probably be in the cockpits of fighter jets, bombers and Apache attack helicopters during an opening air assault. And women such as Jenni would probably be in armed reconnaissance aircraft that scout enemy troops and targets.

Women would also be part of ground combat-related operations - as combat engineers building bridges for soldiers to cross the Euphrates River to enter Baghdad or as chemical officers leading the way through contaminated areas. They would also be on aircraft carriers and command warships.

"If the force is committed, the women will be there," says Evelyn "Pat" Foote, a retired Army brigadier general who formed the Alliance for National Defense to advocate for women in the military. "In fact, we could not do it - we could not perform the mission that's being anticipated and that we're staging for - without the women in the active and reserve corps."

Women make up about 15 percent of the active-duty force - up from 11 percent during the gulf war - reflecting a steady increase since the 1970s. They make up a larger portion of the reserves - nearly 25 percent of the Army Reserve, for instance.

The Pentagon still bars women from ground units that are intended to fight the enemy directly. But the changing nature of warfare, with higher-tech and longer-range weaponry, has blurred the definitions of "combat" and "front lines."

During the American invasion of Panama in 1989, female soldiers and support units that included women exchanged fire with enemy forces. And in the gulf war, Iraqi Scud missiles attacked bases in Saudi Arabia and Israel, putting all military personnel at risk.

"There was no less danger being on a supply ship than a combat ship," says retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military project for the Women's Research and Education Institute. "There's no more 'battlefield.'"

Removing bans

The gulf war involved the largest deployment of U.S. women to date - about 41,000, or 7 percent of total forces. Out of about 300 Americans killed, 13 were women. Two were taken prisoner and released. After the war - and in large part because women performed ably, according to a Government Accounting Office report - the last remaining legislative barriers were lifted.

In 1991, Congress repealed the ban on women flying combat aircraft in the Air Force and Navy, though the Pentagon waited two more years to implement the change.

In 1993, Congress lifted the ban on assigning women to combat ships. The next year, Defense Secretary Les Aspin scrapped the rule that barred women from assignments with a high risk of facing hostile fire or capture. In its place, the Pentagon adopted a rule barring women only from units "whose primary mission" is ground combat.

That meant generally that women could perform in any position except in front-line infantry, armor or artillery units or Special Operations forces. Each service, though, could interpret and apply the rule as it saw fit.

In the Army, women are excluded from 9 percent of all occupations or nearly 30 percent of active-duty positions. In the Marine Corps, 7 percent of all occupations are closed to women, accounting for 38 percent of all active-duty positions.

By contrast, 99 percent of all occupations and positions in the Air Force are open to women. In the Navy, women are excluded only from SEAL teams and, because of the expense of providing separate female quarters, from service on submarines and some small combat ships.

"We are everywhere and all over the fleet," says Lt. Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a Navy spokeswoman.

Yet the changes have not resulted in a flood of women entering previously all-male positions. A study by the RAND Corp. found that progress in integrating women into newly opened positions has been "mixed." Some occupations, such as Army bridge-crew member, are 16 percent women. Others, such as Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter attack pilot, have little to no female representation.

The RAND study noted that the individual services limit the number of women they recruit for certain occupations. An earlier RAND study found that while military women favor the idea of women in combat, only about 10 percent to 15 percent desire such jobs.

On ships, in bombers

Still, women were a presence in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan in ways they could not have been before - flying F-16s and B-1 bombers and serving on combat ships (two women were among those killed in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole) and as peacekeepers.

In Afghanistan, female combat engineers in the Marines have helped build bases. Women serving as military police have taken part in patrols of Afghan villages in search of al-Qaida terrorists and weapons, blurring a line that bars them from missions that could put them face to face with the enemy.

"That's one case where, even though generally it's closed to women, occasionally things happen," says Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman. "There are anomalies here and there."


Some women in combat positions today can't imagine that just a decade ago, they would not have been permitted to serve. To them, such restrictions seem part of military lore or ancient history.

"How long ago was it women weren't allowed to vote? It's like that - it's just accepted now," says Telisha, an Air Force lieutenant and B-52 crew member. She asked that her full name not be used.

Similarly, Jenni says she doesn't think her gender leads to special treatment by colleagues.

"They've only expected me to do my job," says Jenni, a 5-foot-1-inch combat pilot who puts an extra pad behind her back so she can reach everything in the cockpit. "They've not expected any more or less of me."

A 1997 RAND study reported that the integration of women was perceived by men and women as having a "relatively small" effect on readiness, cohesion and morale. The move to higher-tech warfare has also made strength and size less of an argument against women in combat.

More of an issue, the women who fly B-52s at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota say jokingly, is that the bombers have only urinals.

Readiness issues

But some who oppose using women in combat positions fear that the relaxed restrictions could hurt military readiness.

Some studies have found women to be 10 times as nondeployable as men because of pregnancy and child care issues, said Elaine Donnelly, head of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, which has been outspoken in opposing a larger role for military women. Because the active-duty force has shrunk, she argues, a reliance on a large percentage of women could result in personnel shortages.

What's more, Donnelly says, she is troubled - and "I would like to think the American people would be troubled" - by the specter of women being captured and assaulted, possibly sexually, by the enemy. "There's no military necessity" to putting women in that risk, she says.

Pride in service

But proponents of opening up more positions to women point to the lack of public uproar over the capture and death of women in previous wars and missions.

In the gulf war, "the country accepted that women could be captured, tortured and die for their country," says Nancy Duff Campbell of the National Women's Law Center. "There's been a significant transformation in not only what's opened up, but the country's acceptance of - and even pride in - women's role in the military."

But Donnelly notes that Army Maj. Rhonda Cornum, who was taken prisoner in the gulf war, did not reveal for more than a year that she had been sexually assaulted by one of her Iraqi captors. Donnelly says that if Cornum had disclosed her POW experience immediately, while the public was focused on the aftermath of the war, "it may have changed the whole course of the debate."

A new war with Iraq could test the public's acceptance of mothers, sisters and daughters dying for their country. Such casualties could be higher in another gulf war, with women more integrated into the force.

"As the face of war changes," says Army spokeswoman Rudd, "it's a little hard to avoid women being put in positions where they could be killed."

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