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For women vets, a battle along with a war

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 2004


With their buddies driving Humvees and dodging snipers in Iraq, a group of seven Fort Bragg soldiers - all women - formed their own convoy yesterday, en route to a wreath-laying ceremony in Washington, D.C., to honor America's 1.7 million women vets, and all those who came before.

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Their predecessors broke some of the most stubborn barriers in the US Armed Forces. But this group has made its own contributions to military lore: Capt. Betsy Hove is one of only six serving Army women to have graduated from the Army's Sapper leadership and combat training, and Capt. Lee Ann Campbell has logged more helicopter combat missions than any other woman pilot in her battalion's history. They joined several hundred women vets from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to lay a wreath and present a quilt made by women aboard the USS Comfort on the steps of the Women's Veterans Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We really want to honor all the ones who have gone before, but we want to make sure our living history is preserved, too," says Capt. Mara Boggs of the 82nd Airborne Division.

It was only 30 years ago that some women wore makeup to basic training and never laid a finger on a rifle trigger. But today's women veterans are poised to not only make history, but challenge popular perceptions of "girl soldiers" and battle national concerns over how, exactly, women should be allowed to serve. They're still barred from about 30 percent of active-duty roles, including Special Forces and ground combat on the front lines. Yet in the asymmetrical Iraq conflict, with its snipers, road bombs, and perilous supply lines, not carrying an M-16 is scant protection against getting killed. This war, as these seven Joans of Arc know, is helping define how this fastest-growing group of US veterans is popularly perceived.

"The Iraq war has seen the most women lost since World War II, and is really the first time that people are aware that women are out there, the first time that's in their face," says First Sgt. Paula Keehn (ret.), webmaster of in Sioux County, Iowa, and a 20-year Army veteran. "You turn on the TV and there's a Humvee with a 50 caliber on top and a little tiny girl behind it, just shooting the heck out of somebody."

Though US servicewomen aren't fighting in Fallujah, roughly 1 in 7 Americans serving in Iraq is female, and the officers corps is rising rapidly, as is the women's medal count. So far, 26 American women soldiers and three civilians have died, many of them in combat.

American women have fought, sometimes disguised as men, since the Revolutionary War, and their legacy is one of rough ascent, struggling to dispel rumors and resentment in the trenches as they fight old stereotypes.

"In the Gulf War, the image was more of 'Mommy goes to war,' but today there's much more of a perception of women out there in the field, doing stuff that we used to think only men did," says Navy Capt. Lory Manning (ret.), director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute. "But that also means we've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly."