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In The Line of Fire

Officially, American women do not serve in combat roles, but in Iraq, they're on the front lines as never before.

By Juliet Macur in Iraq



For her first raid of an Iraqi home, Private Safiya Boothe, 21, had no idea what to expect. Tucking herself behind a group of men from her Army unit, her soft features hidden by full battle gear, she tried to be as anonymous as possible. Inside, she saw a group of Iraqi women cowering in a corner. While her male colleagues searched for weapons and questioned the men, her job as a female soldier was to put the women at ease and, if necessary, search them.

She pointed to the ponytail poking from beneath her helmet and immediately, she recalled, the women's apprehension seemed to fall away. Soon they had invited her to join them for tea.

"In their culture, dealing with male strangers is out of the question, but dealing with another woman, they drop their guard," says Boothe. "Bottom line, that's why I'm here in Iraq, stuck in this scary situation."

The role of women in the military has evolved, from serving as nurses in the Civil War to serving in support units in the Persian Gulf war, but never before have they been on the front lines the way they are now in Iraq. Pentagon policy prohibits women from being used in combat roles, but the application of that rule is impractical in Iraq: Hot spots are wherever an insurgent sets off a roadside bomb or shoots mortar rounds at a military base.

'Doing heavy lifting'

Women make up 15 percent of the 160,000 American troops in Iraq, and they are being wounded and killed in greater numbers than ever before. Of the 2,149 members of the military who have died in Iraq as of December, 45 have been women.

"Before this war, people only imagined how women would react in combat roles and thought that they couldn't handle it," says Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who is now the director of the Women in the Military project. "But for the first time, women are shooting back and doing heavy lifting in a real war. The bullets are real, so are the roadside bombs and the blood. Now we see that women are bonding with the men and not going to pieces."

On a typical 120-degree day in August, Boothe sat alone and bored in her cavernous, concrete-walled room at Camp Normandy, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. For seven months, this had been her home; she is one of eight women among 700 soldiers at the base.

Boothe joined the Army straight out of high school for the adventure. By trade, she is a machinist who makes and repairs hoses. Now she is attached to the First Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment of the Third Infantry Division—an infantry unit technically off-limits to women—on a base where the roads are pockmarked from mortar and rocket attacks. Other women at Camp Normandy say that they had the option to turn down the assignment, but Boothe says she didn't know she had a choice.

A 'difficult situation'

The challenges women face at Camp Normandy are not limited to warfare. Being outnumbered by men almost 100 to 1, with no women-only bathrooms or showers, they have had to find creative ways to get along. Boothe's female roommate made a wooden sign with "Female" on it, and they prop it against the shower room's door when inside.

Most of the facilities on the base are geared toward men. In the PX, the general store, there are sporty-scented deodorants, multipacks of chewing tobacco, and tubs of protein powder. Boothe says the men with whom she works are like her big brothers, but she would rather spend time with her roommate, Pfc. Elise Yoder, talking, watching DVDs, or playing video games. The two have tried to make their concrete room cozy with rugs and wall hangings.

Off the base, there is no reprieve from harassment, real or perceived. Some Iraqi men stare and whisper, or surround them, try to touch them, or ask to marry them. Still, battle gear that hides their figures, and sometimes their faces, frequently protects them from being noticed.

"I know the women are in a very difficult situation, but I give them credit for toughing it out," says Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier, the commander of the 1-30th. "They have a very important job here."

But not all of the men are so supportive. Specialist Katherine Daronche, 21, who volunteered to serve at Camp Normandy, says she feels that she's being watched more closely by her male peers to see if she can do the job.

"One guy once said, 'I don't agree with you being here,' and I told him, 'Well, you don't have a choice in the matter,'" says Daronche. "I said, 'You're forgetting, I'm your medic. I don't care if you agree with me; I'm still here to save your life.'"

Overall, though, Daronche says she has made friends. The men tell her about problems back home, because she says she's easier to talk to than the male soldiers.

Boothe, however, could use a break from boy talk. "I'm sick of hearing about cars and how you're going to soup up your car and what you're going to do with your truck," she says, mocking her male counterparts. "I don't know what's come over me. I just want to read a good home-decorating magazine or go shopping."