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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.

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

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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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