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Do US women belong in the thick of the fighting?

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"To pretend that women would have an equal capability of doing that is a dangerous philosophy, and lives could be lost as a result of it," says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and one of the most outspoken critics of current military policy on women in war zones.

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Validating violence against women?

For some, part of this concern involves the number of women killed and wounded in combat, which is accumulating at a much higher rate than in previous wars. (Only one American woman was killed by hostile fire in the 10-year Vietnam War.)

But there's more to it than that. In a way, there are similarities among US political/cultural conservatives and Islamic traditionalists, both of whom are opposed to women as "war fighters."

"If we as a nation endorse the idea of women in combat that engages the enemy deliberately, we would be saying that violence against women is OK as long as it happens at the hand of the enemy," says Ms. Donnelly. "That would be a setback for our civilization."

That may be a debatable point, and public opinion surveys aren't clear on how many agree with it. But women in Iraq have been decorated for directly engaging enemy fighters and saving other soldiers' lives as a result. Army Airborne Capt. Kellie McCoy earned a Bronze Star with combat "V" (for valor) for a 2003 incident in Fallujah. Leading a patrol that got ambushed and took casualties, she hopped up into the Humvee's machine gun turret, killed a couple of the attackers, then led her men to safety.

But this deeply emotional and personal issue is not clear-cut for many people, no matter what their politics or world view.

Beth Coye is a retired US Navy commander who served from 1960 to 1980. She describes herself as very liberal politically, a staunch feminist, one who thinks women should be able to serve aboard US submarines. Still, she can't bring herself to accept the notion of women as front-line ground troops.

"Women are performing well in Iraq, and we knew they would and could," says Commander Coye, who has taught at the Naval War College. "But for me, the deal still is rifle carrying and all that. I can't quite get there myself; I really can't."

All put to the same test

Sam Huff's parents aren't planning anything special for Memorial Day. After three services for their daughter, "We're pretty memorialed out," BobHuff says. They know they need to get on with their lives.

Still, they remain close to Sam's military friends, and find that a comfort. "The recruiters who worked with Sam have been coming by the house, and we have a real good relationship," he says. "The military in general and the Army in particular have done everything they possibly can to make us comfortable, to make us feel a part of their family, and to try to take some of the burden off of us."

What advice would he give others whose children may want to enter military service? "I would just say the obligation on the parents' part is to make sure the child or young adult knows the risks and consequences involved, and knows as much about what war brings as they can. It's the responsibility of the parent to make sure they make an informed decision, but ultimately the choice has to be theirs."

On the question of gender and military service, he still believes, as his daughter did, that "they should all be put to the same test, and if they can cut it, there is absolutely no reason in the world that they shouldn't serve."

And he adds, "Thank God that we have the number of young people we do who are willing to fight for their country."

But there is another kind of equality here, too, Sam Huff's father acknowledges: "If your child dies in a war in a foreign land, male or female, it's going to hurt just the same."

How Memorial Day came to be

Memorial Day traces its roots to the years after the Civil War, though there are competing claims over its origins.

Waterloo, N.Y., received the official nod, in 1966, as the "birthplace" of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War.

Two years later, a Union veterans' association established Decoration Day as a time to decorate soldiers' graves with flowers. May 30, when most of the country was in bloom, was the chosen date. The first observance was at Arlington National Cemetery, where small US flags were placed on each grave.

After World War I, the observance was expanded to honor fallen veterans of all wars.

In 1950, Congress asked the president to issue a proclamation calling on the American people to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and designating a period that day when they might unite in prayer.

Memorial Day became a national holiday in 1971.

This year, President Bush declared May 30 as a day of prayer for permanent peace and the hour of 11 a.m. as a time to unite in prayer.

Sources: Websites of US Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House, and the White House Commission on Remembrance.