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The expanding role of GI Jane

Women now make up about 15 percent of the US armed forces, and the many mothers here mourn missed birthdays and bedtime stories.

By Ann Scott TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2003


American women are more fully engaged in warfare than ever before. They are striking targets, taking fire, guarding Iraqi prisoners of war, and driving trucks laden with supplies amid ambushes and snipers. Breaking old social taboos, they face capture, injury, and death - risks highlighted in Nasiriyah yesterday with the dramatic hospital rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, missing for 10 days since her maintenance company was overrun and she, with seven others (including another woman, Spc. Shoshana Johnson), was captured.

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Currently, women make up about 15 percent of the US armed forces - a proportion that's nearly doubled since 1980 and is up by a third since the last Gulf War. More than 90 percent of service positions are open to women. And though women remain barred from about 30 percent of active-duty positions - including Special Forces and frontline ground-combat roles - the front lines, it now seems, are everywhere: With guerrilla fighting and supply lines that snake through the sand, a medic careening over the desert in her canvas-topped Humvee can be as vulnerable as a young private crouched in Baghdad with his M-16.

Some women believe that more ground-combat roles should be open to them: As long as they can lift and load the rounds, they say, women should be allowed to command tanks and artillery platoons. Women, after all, perform crucial jobs men cannot - frisking Iraqi females for hidden weapons at checkpoints, or entering rooms reserved for women in Muslim societies. Congress lifted the ban on women serving on combat ships after the first Gulf War, and the Pentagon did away with its "risk rule," which outlined where women could and couldn't serve, according to the likelihood of enemy contact.

Such a system made less sense as warfare changed and the definition of "front lines" disintegrated. Now, says Laura Miller, an expert on gender and the military at RAND, "we don't necessarily have a clear line in the sand. And with longdistance missiles, people in the rear are in danger, too. It's strategically advantageous to take out supply lines and communications centers - which is where women are more concentrated. Nobody's really safe."

Yet, on many levels, war is a qualitatively different experience for women. They say their gender sets them apart, and they must struggle to adjust to a male world, especially in combat forces. The many mothers here openly mourn missed birthdays, first steps, and bedtime stories, with what seems a greater intensity than the fathers do. Some left behind babies as young as a few months old.

Women soldiers headed toward Baghdad with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division shared their stories with the Monitor.

Lt. Sarah Fritts

Lt. Sarah Fritts heard the first cracks of AK-47 machine-gun rounds targeting her Kiowa scout helicopter as she flew low over the central Iraqi city of As Samawah. Scanning the ground only 60 feet below, she saw a crowd of Iraqi civilians lining the banks of the Euphrates.

"Half the people were waving at us, and the others were shooting out of their homes, so it was a bad mix," recalls Lieutenant Fritts, a platoon leader with the 3rd Squadron of the 3rd Infantry Division's 7th Cavalry, known as the 3-7 Cav. "All along the river, fire was coming out of home after home."

Up ahead, another Kiowa crew spotted an Iraqi jumping out of a car with an AK-47 and running into a building. An attack on the building was ordered, and Fritts and the other pilots zeroed in with their rockets, completely flattening the structure.

It was the first combat of the war for Fritts and her platoon, but when she landed, she discovered that her reaction to the fighting was completely different from that of her male comrades.