USA-T - Despite Rule, U.S. Women On Front Line In Iraq War; Shifting insurgency, frequent car bomb attacks putting servicewomen in line of fire
June 27, 2005 Pg. 8
Despite Rule, U.S. Women On Front Line In Iraq War
Shifting insurgency, frequent car bomb attacks putting servicewomen in line of fire
By Rick Jervis, USA Today
BAGHDAD — The Marines' “female search force” was tasked with patting down the Iraqi women who came through checkpoints.
Not front-line combat action. But a job that has to be handled with sensitivity in Iraq, where many Muslim women cover themselves head to toe and avoid contact with males who aren't close relatives.
Thursday, a suicide car bomber hurtled his vehicle at a convoy carrying members of a search team back to their Marine base near Fallujah. The bomb ignited a colossal blast that killed at least two female Marines and wounded 11 others. (At least one male Marine was killed and two other male servicemembers injured.) Investigators are trying to identify two more bodies.
It was the worst attack of the Iraq war involving female U.S. troops and the deadliest for American women in uniform since a Japanese kamikaze slammed into the USS Comfort in 1945 during World War II, killing six nurses aboard.
One of the female servicewomen killed Thursday was Lance Cpl. Holly Charette, a 21-year-old military mail clerk from Cranston, R.I. Her goal was to deliver mail for the U.S. Postal Service when her Marine duties ended next year.
A 1994 Pentagon policy bars women from being in a direct combat zone. But Iraq's shifting front lines and shadowy enemy have pushed many ordinary female troops — auto mechanics, cooks, mail clerks — into dangerous posts.
Soldiers are soldiers, whatever their gender (or even their sex); it's utter sophistry to pretend otherwise. They go in harm's way, so that you don't have to. And sometimes they don't have to go looking for harm, it comes to them. It's dishonest and disingenous to pretend that women aren't serving in combat. On the other hand, a common-sense approach to limiting some specialties to male-only soldiers isn't uncalled-for. Limiting missions, such as with the combat-support units in the "units of action," isn't really practical. Out there, "where the rubber meets the road," as the saying goes, there isn't time or energy to spare segregating the troops by gender depending on the type of mission your combat support element will have to perform. You either have mission-capable teams or not. Removing the women soldiers at the last moment will destroy whatever team integrity you've managed to instill, degrading efficiency at the worst possible instant.
Thursday's incident could rekindle congressional debate about women in the military. Last month, a group of House Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment restricting the role of women in units that could be exposed to combat.
About 11,100 women now serve in Iraq — or about 8% of the total U.S. force of 138,000, says Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, an Army spokesman. At least 37 servicewomen have been killed and 304 wounded. Total U.S. fatalities number 1,729; total wounded is 13,074, including 6,442 who did not return to action within 72 hours.
“This incident will certainly cause Congress to start asking the right kinds of questions,” says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative group that advocates more restrictions on women in the military.
Playing down gender differences
Here, female troops often face an enemy who springs up on supply convoys or strikes with roadside bombs. Earlier this month, the U.S. military awarded a Silver Star to Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, 23, of Nashville, for her role in a March 20 battle south of Baghdad. She was the first woman to receive the award for exceptional valor since World War II and the first ever to be cited for heroism in close combat.
In Iraq, female troops play down gender differences in the field.
Army Maj. Jennifer Snyder commands a 20-member public affairs unit, including seven women, from inside the heavily fortified Convention Center adjacent to the Green Zone. Her female soldiers commonly go through the city in convoys that put them at risk from bombs or ambushes.
“We're not kicking down doors; we're not Special Forces,” Snyder says. “But, heck, we had a rocket go over the Convention Center recently. Right now, we're restricted enough. It's just the way this war is being fought.”
Army Sgt. Rachel Deaton, with the Baghdad-based 3rd Infantry Division, came to Iraq as a mechanic but was soon riding in the front seat of a Humvee providing security for convoys, she says. She goes out nearly every night on escort patrols. She has been within 50 feet of roadside bomb blasts and taken on small-arms fire “several dozen” times, she says.
“I could stay on base my whole time here and be in just as much danger,” says Deaton, 23, of York, S.C. “If you pass that law (restricting women's roles), you might as well keep us in Kuwait.”
Perhaps that's what needs, in the final analysis, to be done, but that's a political decision.
Filling key roles
Marine Lt. Col. Sara Phoenix, an analyst serving in Fallujah, says limits on female troops are gender discrimination. U.S. servicewomen in Fallujah fill vital roles — combat photographers, truck drivers and intelligence analysts, she says.
“Gender has no relevance in the Marine Corps today,” Phoenix says in an e-mail. “The ideal of equality is not just about the right to vote or work. This notion that women are somehow not able to perform their jobs in the military in a combat environment flies in the face of everything we say we value in the USA.”
What's important is that male military leaders and ordinary grunts now know they can count on women, says Lory Manning, retired Navy captain and director of the Women in the Military project at the Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington.
“In the past, all we had were theories about how women would react. Now we have experience,” she said.
Thursday's incident took place in the aftermath of the U.S.-led assault on Fallujah and nearby Ramadi in November. U.S. and Iraqi forces cordoned off both cities, battling insurgents for days and effectively retaking the cities from rebels. But lately insurgents have stepped up attacks in the area, underlining the challenge of maintaining security after large offensives.
In Fallujah, about 20 female Marines and sailors are assigned to search Iraqi women at checkpoints, says Maj. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman. Some are trained in search techniques before being deployed to Iraq, others get instruction on base, he says. The female Marines look through purses and bags and pat down Iraqi women. They work alongside infantrymen, something Pentagon policy generally restricts them from doing.
The temporary assignments don't violate the policy because they don't put women in what the Pentagon considers a “direct combat zone,” says Donnelly, of the watchdog group.
No shortage of danger
Still, the duty requires travel over dangerous streets. About 7:30 p.m. Thursday, a female search team was returning to its base from checkpoints in eastern Fallujah when the suicide bomber struck, Gibson says. The women were riding in an open-air, armored 7-ton truck, he says. Military investigators are still trying to determine whether the attacker specifically targeted the women, he says.
The sound of the blast boomed through the city, says Ahmed al-Badrani, 30, an engineer there. U.S. forces answered that night by raining mortars on targets in the city and conducting door-to-door raids, he says. The next morning, al-Badrani saw huge black traces from the blast and mangled remains of the U.S. truck.
“None of the cities are fortresses,” says Maj. Gen. Stephen Johnson, commander of the Marines in restive Anbar province. “They are all open cities. Insurgents melt in with the general population.”
The female searchers were an essential part of security teams that helped screen who's coming in or out of the city, he says.
Contributing: Traci Watson in McLean, Va.