Wednesday, March 19, 2008

War Over Women In Combat

U.S. servicewomen are flying jets and helicopter gunships, driving and fixing trucks, searching suspected terrorists, patching the wounded and, in some cases, killing the enemy up close. As the nation's warriors finish their fifth year in the Iraq war this month, more women are on the battleground than at any time in U.S. history. They now make up about 10 percent of the forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. 'Reality is, we can't fill [forward support companies] without females,' one Iraq veteran told the U.S. Department of Defense for a recent report on the assignment of women. Another said flatly that American forces 'can't accomplish the mission without women.' However, the debate continues about whether women should serve an even greater role by joining men in ground combat units. Are women strong enough, mentally and physically? Will they kill when they have to? Can men and women work together at the grueling pace of combat operations? The nature of the current wars and conflicts means those questions have been answered, for some. With no front line and 360 degrees of threat, the Iraq war has blurred the meanings of 'enemy,' 'forward position' and 'combat.' One soldier interviewed by the Rand Corp. for the Department of Defense report said soldiers are 'forward' as soon as their air transport takes off from Kuwait. Soldiers in Vietnam experienced similar nonlinear warfare, but today many more women are in hostile territory. Although they are barred from the infantry, armor and other attack forces, women often work closely with those combat units.That means that a female truck driver or military police officer can expect to be attacked - and is expected by her superiors and her male buddies to fight back. Some women have done so. In 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, an MP with the Kentucky National Guard, became the first woman to win the Silver Star since World War II (a second woman has won the medal in Iraq since). In a fight south of Baghdad, Hester was credited with killing three of the 27 insurgents slain. Two of her fellow soldiers, both men, also won Silver Stars for their roles in the firefight. Asked later about the significance of being the first woman to win the prestigious medal in more than 50 years, Hester said, 'It really doesn't have anything to do with being a female. It's about the duties I performed that day as a soldier.' U.S. Army Capt. Rose Forrest, a Glastonbury native who now lives in Maryland and serves with the National Guard in that state, was in Iraq in 2005-06 as a mortuary officer attached to an infantry brigade. Forrest also participated in the 'Lioness' program, in which U.S. servicewomen take part in patrols to root out insurgents and stashes of weapons. Some Iraqi women opened up to female interrogators because their culture forbids them to speak to men they don't know. Forrest said the Iraqi women in Ramadi often gave Lioness members valuable information that they would not have given to male soldiers. As for whether women are worthy of combat duty, Forrest said female soldiers in her unit won Purple Hearts and Combat Action badges. 'I saw women serve valiantly, and I think women can do whatever they want to do,' Forrest said. Sources differ slightly on the number of American female service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan so far, but the total is more than 90 and includes Army Pfc. Melissa Hobart of East Haven , who collapsed while on guard duty in Iraq in 2004 and died of a still undetermined cause, and U.S. Army Spc. Tyanna Avery-Felder, 22, of Bridgeport, killed in April 2004 after a bomb hit her convoy vehicle.By comparison, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington , D.C., includes the names of eight women among the more than 58,000 dead. Retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning of the Women in Military Project of the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C., said American women have proved their mettle. They have shown in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are brave and that they have the physical and mental stamina to face combat and emerge from one firefight to do it again, Manning said. 'All the old arguments are gone, and now the only thing that's left is, do we want mothers to be killers, which is a fair question,' Manning said. Others, however, say questions persist. 'When you put a single female or a few females into a large group of men, in an isolated area, for long lengths of time, you are asking for romantic relations to possibly flourish, whether right or wrong, wanted or not. What soldier or Marine will be able to focus, knowing his girlfriend or wife is on a patrol next?' retired Marine 1st Sgt. Ben Grainger asked. He served as the chief noncommissioned officer for Plainville 's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, which returned to Connecticut from Iraq in 2006. Grainger's comments, made in an e-mail, echo the concerns of others who oppose women in combat units.
"It's the needs of the military that come first," said Elaine Donnelly, director of a Washington, D.C., think tank called the Center for Military Readiness. "In direct combat, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help other soldiers survive." Concerns include fears that sexual integration would lead to relationships that would cause jealousy among men competing for the female soldiers' attention, weakening the close bond and teamwork needed in front-line units. Opponents also have said that women might not hold up psychologically under the rigors of war. A Pentagon study released last year, however, showed that female soldiers coped as well as their male colleagues. "We found no evidence that female soldiers are less able than male soldiers to cope with the stressors and challenges of serving in combat," a team of military mental health experts concluded in the report, based on extensive surveys of troops in Iraq. "When discussing the role of the female soldier in combat, the focus needs to move away from one of weakness and vulnerability, to one of strength and accomplishment." The most often cited reason for continuing to exclude women from combat is their physical strength, compared with men. An infantry soldier, for example, must carry a heavy weight for long distances.
As authors Sara L. Zeigler and Gregory G. Gunderson write in their 2005 book "Moving Beyond G.I. Jane," evidence presented to the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces in 1992 showed that the top 20 percent of female military personnel received scores equivalent to those of the bottom 20 percent of men in the Army's physical fitness test and that only one woman in 100 could meet a physical standard met by 60 of 100 men. Grainger wrote in his e-mail that soldiers in combat depend on each other's physical capabilities. "I have run races and marathons, and can still feel the butt-kicking weight of 70-plus pounds of combat gear when on long patrols, and especially when rushing around under fire," Grainger wrote. "The possibility of having to carry others' gear to help them keep up or to have to slow down, making yourself an easier target, are not acceptable under real world combat conditions." However, Zeigler and Gunderson write that women have made great strides in physical fitness, and that new technology, including lighter weapons and the development of exo-skeletons, will change the nature of combat forces In any case, a woman who can meet the demands of combat duty should not be denied the opportunity, the authors write. "The opponents of women in combat fail to make their case that all women should be barred from combat positions due to the inabilities of some women," Zeigler and Gunderson write.

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