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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Everyone was like, 'Yeah, get them'' and I was having trouble with that really aggressive attitude," she recalls. "People were saying, 'Yeah, let's go level that whole area.' And I was saying, 'There's no reason to go level 50 homes' - it just wasn't necessary."

Indeed, in a break between missions on the route to Baghdad, Fritts said that while she's proud to be one of only two women pilots with the 3-7th Cavalry, her life on the front lines has been distinctly different from that of the men around her.

"There are some things that set me apart," says the West Point graduate from Portland, Ore.

The granddaughter of a World War II B-17 pilot, Fritts has wanted to fly helicopters since she was a freshman in high school. After West Point, she attended flight school, where less than 10 percent of her classmates were women. Now, she proudly wears the Cavalry's signature black Stetson with gold tassels that she keeps behind the seat of her Kiowa, nicknamed "Drunken Monkey."

Male colleagues treat her with respect, she says, even though she knows some of them disagree with policies allowing women to serve in military jobs traditionally reserved for men. "The guys are very professional, so they put aside their personal feelings," she says.

But Fritts has realized that as the lone woman, she will not enjoy the kind of lifelong bonds forged in combat by the men in her platoon. "A lot of the guys get their best buddies from within the troop, so they can really let go and be themselves. But my best friends are women, and they aren't here, so the guys won't really know me the same way," she says.

Practical problems in western Iraq's flat terrain, such as finding a spot to change clothes or go to the bathroom, also separate Fritts from the men. So does a disinclination to join in with the men's lewd banter and crude jokes.

As an officer, Fritts has had to make a conscious effort to change the language she uses with her male subordinates - eliminating niceties. "Guys are more direct. Instead of asking them to do things, I have to tell them, without saying 'Please' or 'Thanks.' That's what they expect."

Fritts sees herself as a trailblazer, and as she witnesses firsthand the strict segregation of women in Iraq, she feels particularly gratified that American women can serve in combat. Still, she believes that combat fields, such as armor and artillery, should be opened up to women who have the physical strength to do those jobs.

Fritts doesn't relish the danger of her work. "Every time I go up, I expect to get shot at," she says, admitting that only her training allows her to overcome the fear and confusion of combat.

But she rejects, on principle, the idea that a public aversion to placing women in harm's way should bar her from the front lines. "Why should I not be allowed to do something I want to do because some guy lying on a couch watching TV feels uncomfortable seeing me dragged through the street?" she says. "I don't see why a woman's life is so much more important than a man's life," she says. "For a woman to gain full citizenship, she should be able to die for her country."

Sgt. Raja Valenzuela

Sgt. Raja Valenzuela speaks softly in Arabic to two women in black robes, cradling their children on the side of an Iraqi road.

"Where did you come from?" she asks.

"From An Najaf," say the women, pointing to the city's gold, onion-domed mosque in the distance. Along with a truckload of men, they are refugees from days of guerrilla warfare in and around the city which is under siege from US forces.

Just then, a mortar round explodes several hundred yards away, and the women jump and cover their heads. Several other blasts follow, sending up white clouds in the wheat fields below the city.

Sergeant Valenzuela, a native of Morocco, is performing a crucial job as an Arabic linguist for the Army in Iraq, where in many localities, it is culturally unacceptable for male US soldiers to search, or even question, women. Military police and civil affairs units rely on women such as Valenzuela for this work.

The previous night, for example, women stopped at the checkpoint were found to have hidden AK-47s under their ankle-length robes. Indeed, US intelligence reports indicate that scores of female suicide bombers ready to attack US military targets are among the forces loyal to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"In this culture, men cannot touch or search, or even look at, women," says Spc. Ashley Beaty of the 422 Civil Affairs Battalion. She recently visited an Iraqi farmhouse and was welcomed into the women's hut to drink tiny glasses filled half with sugar, half with tea. A female Army doctor examined women and children.

Valenzuela enjoys working as a linguist, a job she began only days ago when her translating talents came to light. Still, as the daughter of a Moroccan diplomat, she finds many aspects of life as an Army sergeant hard and degrading, especially in Iraq. And she misses her 2-year-old son.

Raised in Europe and the Middle East, Valenzuela immigrated to the US from Morocco in 1995 after getting a job working at the Moroccan Pavilion at Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla. She recalled being impressed when a male coworker from Morocco joined the Marines. "He used to come to the Pavilion to flaunt his Class A uniform, and we all said, 'Wow!'"

She visited an Army recruiter, but was so upset by the basic-training video he showed her that she left in tears. "All the yelling, I wasn't used to that. I was taught Oxford English, very proper, so I didn't understand the slang. I felt like a retard."

Determined to enlist anyway, she went to boot camp, where her poise paid off. Out of her entire company, she was chosen "Soldier of the Cycle" for her confidence, knowledge, and military bearing. "I got to stand at a special place near the reviewing stand at graduation," she says, smiling.

Yet aspects of Army life grate on Valenzuela, who notes that in the Moroccan military, women serve only as officers. "In America, everyone is equal, but this is a little too equal for my tastes," she says.

"Some things we do are very degrading to women, like cleaning the [excrement] and digging foxholes. Sometimes women do the hard work and men sit around flossing because they have rank on us. I don't like disrespect, like the way males talk to you when they outrank you. That ticks me off," she says.

The constant battle with dust and dirt here is also harder on women, Valenzuela says. "We're not like guys. We have to be clean," she says. "We need soap and water. You can't live off baby wipes."

Like many mothers here, Valenzuela is heartbroken about being away from her son, her only child. "I always lived in fear that I would leave my son," she says, sitting on her cot and pulling out a snapshot. "I have to have my baby with me. We never even bought a crib because he slept in our bed." Valenzuela's husband is also deployed with the Army, and their son is with her mother in Morocco.

Long separations from children are a major reason why many Army women decide to leave the military. That, combined with perceived obstacles, concerns about harassment, limited occupational roles, and the challenges of dual-military-career families, help account for Army attrition rates being far higher for women.

Though white female officers are promoted in only slightly lower proportions than are white males, they're more likely to leave. Before their first three years are up, nearly 47 percent of enlisted women have left - by choice or by order - compared with about 28 percent of their male comrades. And across all armed services, about 38 percent of women - and one third of men - leave in their first three years.

Valenzuela, for one, does not plan to reenlist when her contract expires in 2004. "This time," she says, "I will get out."

Spc. Stephanie Keenan

Spc. Stephanie Keenan and her team of medics with the 3-7 Cavalry was inching past a small Iraqi town when suddenly, her Humvee was surrounded by 30 to 40 curious villagers.

Intrigued by Specialist Kennan's light blond hair and blue eyes, the Iraqis stared and drew close to her. "One kid was telling me he loved me and wanted to marry me. He gave me a keychain for a ring," she says. Then the villagers started reaching into the Humvee, touching her arm and grabbing things.

"No thank you, no," Keenan said, starting to panic. She put on her sunglasses and Kevlar helmet and shrank into the vehicle. A short way up the road, things rapidly worsened as night fell. After crossing a bridge, fighting broke out. An artillery round landed near Keenan's Humvee, shaking the ground. "Debris was flying everywhere," she says. "Then a Bradley at our right got hit with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]. It was scary. We didn't have communications in our vehicle, so we didn't know what was going on."

Keenan, a medic from the 703rd Batallion, is performing what has long been a woman's job in the military: treating the wounded. But given new strategies of warfare, with linear battles giving way to the rapid insertion of forces across the battlespace, women like Keenan are finding themselves increasingly on the front lines. Moreover, the guerrilla tactics of Iraqi forces in this war have blurred the very definition of the front line: The five 3rd Infantry Division soldiers lost so far were killed by a sniper and a suicide bomber well behind the leading edge of the fighting.

Indeed, Iraqi fighters have not hesitated to attack "soft targets" in addition to armored vehicles. An ambulance withKeenan's company, clearly marked with a red cross, was destroyed by a mortar round. "The soldiers jumped out, took what they could from the ambulance, and ran to another vehicle," she says.

Keenan grew up in Ormo, Wisc., a tiny farming town of 2,800 that has no stoplight or movie theater. Her mother ran a beauty parlor, Debbie's Hair House, from her home, and Keenan knows everyone in town. But as the outgoing baby of the family, she decided to join the Army, both to see the world and to earn money for college and medical studies.

"I'm the kind of person who, if people told me I can't do something, I'm going to do it," she says, resting her rifle beside a sandbag. "I wanted travel and excitement."

Initially, it bothered Keenan when officers decided to replace her and other women medics in 3-7 combat platoons with males because "they didn't want females up so close." She quickly realized, however, that it made little difference. "We are all in the same danger in the end. I ride in a canvas-topped Humvee, so I am basically unprotected."

As gender and military expert Dr. Miller points out, that's one reason the notion of "combat" has shifted. With changing methods of warfare - and a growing acceptance of women's presence in certain roles - many positions that were once declared "combat roles" are no longer defined as such. "Over time," she says, "the line of exactly what combat is, has shifted. It tends to be whatever women aren't in. So based on history, I'd say the line will keep moving. And as [war] goes more and more high-tech and becomes less about heavy physical labor and front lines, more positions will open."

Although Keenan fears what the future holds in Iraq, she feels toughened by the war. "It's made me a stronger person, going through some of the scariest stuff I've been through in my life and surviving," she says. "I know there are still a lot of people who believe people shouldn't be here. But we're here, and we're doing a great job."

Staff writer Liz Marlantes in Washington contributed to this report.

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