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Women at War

Officially, American women can't serve in combat, but in Iraq and Afghanistan they're fighting—and dying—as never before

By Lizette Alvarez

Lieutenant Emily Perez, 23, was a West Point graduate who outran many men, directed a gospel choir, and read the Bible every day. As a platoon leader in Iraq, she led a weekly convoy south of Baghdad on roads pocked with bombs and bullets. Last September, she was killed when one of those roadside bombs detonated near her Humvee.

Perez, the highest-ranking black and Hispanic female cadet in West Point's history, was the 64th woman from the U.S. military to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The role of women in the military has evolved from serving as nurses in the Civil War to serving in support units in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

But now, for the first time, servicewomen by the thousands are on the ground, engaging the enemy—and being wounded and killed in greater numbers than ever before. Of the nearly 3,500 U.S. soldiers who had died in Iraq or Afghanistan as of mid-February, 80 were women (compared with eight who died in the Vietnam war).

Pentagon policy officially forbids women, who make up 10 percent of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, from serving in combat roles. But the reality of the situation in both countries, where the front line can be anywhere, is making the rules hard to follow.

'It's All Combat in Ramadi'

"[The policy] says you can have female medics, but they can't see combat," says Capt. Megan O'Connor, who served in Iraq for a year and a half. "It's all combat in Ramadi. . . . They put the rules down on paper. It looks good. It reads good. But for a commander to implement, it's impossible."

In this 360-degree war and ongoing insurgency, women are in the thick of it, hauling heavy equipment and expected to defend themselves and others from an enemy that is all around them. They are driving supplies down treacherous roads, as Perez did, frisking Iraqi women at dangerous checkpoints, and handling gun turrets on personnel carriers.

"We are asking far more of our female soldiers than ever before in history,'' says Elaine Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative think tank.

The Pentagon says it is relaxing the policy in part because there aren't enough troops, men or women, and that the U.S. can't sustain its mission without women doing these jobs. But opponents say that sending women out with combat troops, even in support roles, is illegal.

Conventional wisdom has long held that women were not suited to the battlefield—too frail, emotionally and physically, to survive combat pressure. Men, it was said, would crumble at the sight of a bloodied female soldier, or put themselves at risk to protect her. The public would not stomach women coming back in body bags. And mixing men and women could lead to deadly mistakes.

'Pulling Their Own Weight'

Advocates say women are up to the task. "They are pulling their own weight and performing as well as men,'' says Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who is now director for the women-in-the-military project at the Women's Research and Education Institute. And the fact that the Army is successfully using women in new roles is likely to lead policymakers to revisit the rules, some analysts say.

"The next door to open is ground combat," says Manning. "That's the last frontier. A lot of the social conservatives have powerful feelings about training mothers to kill."

Certainly, female soldiers face challenges, both at war and at home. Incidents of sexual harassment on military bases are common. And there are practical considerations: Women often share sleeping quarters with men, and equipment in women's sizes can be hard to come by.

Women also face resistance among some male commanders, who seem troubled by the idea of putting women at risk, say some women who have served in Iraq.

Capt. Tammy Spicer, who commanded a transportation company for the Missouri National Guard, says women are often being watched to see if they are up to the job. Although driving trucks is dangerous work in Iraq, her company drove more than a million miles with no enemy-related casualties.

If anything was taxing, she says, it was in 2003 in Kuwait, when she and four other women shared a tent with 45 men. The women shared showers with the men, on rotation, and always got the worst hours.

"Their bickering, their cursing, their body noises,'' Spicer says, laughing. "They would leave their food out and we would have rats. There was no relief from men.''