In the opening days of America's war in Afghanistan, Capt. Allison Black's AC-130H gunship thundered low through the night sky. Below, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) were fighting alongside Northern Alliance warlords.
A navigator with the Air Force 1st Special Operations Group, Black was strapped in behind the pilots on a flight deck bristling with radios, gauges, and monitors that kept her in constant contact with SOF forces on the ground, helping them identify targets. It was Black giving the final "clear to fire" consent for the crew to release a barrage from a Gatling gun and other artillery on Taliban forces.
And it was Black's voice that special operators on the ground heard as they fought. Afghan soldiers overheard the chatter, too. On a mission over the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz in 2001, one particularly fierce warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, "found it amazing" that a woman was directing fire on the Taliban forces, says Black. "He thought it was so hilarious. He asked, 'Is that a woman?' "
When SOF fighters confirmed it was, Dostum, she says, was incredulous – and impressed: "America is so determined to kill the Taliban that they send women," he said.
Then, as Black called in another round of fire, Dostum dialed enemy fighters by phone, so they, too, could hear her voice on his walkie-talkie: "He really berated them, saying 'You're so pathetic, American women are killing you. You need to surrender now,' " Black says.
Taliban forces did surrender the next morning, and the first female navigator to open fire in combat came to be known as the "Angel of Death" among the Afghans. That battle – and others – also made Black, now a major, the first woman to earn the Air Force's combat action medal.
Today, US military officials concede that despite prohibitions against women serving in combat – and despite efforts in some cases to keep women far from fighting – there are no defined front lines.
A decade after Black flew her first mission in America's war in Afghanistan, the ranks of women in the military are growing: They now make up 16 percent of the force, a number that is expected to grow to one-quarter by 2025.
And after a decade of war in which women increasingly play de facto combat roles across the armed services, the Pentagon is now considering opening up more jobs for women that will bring them ever closer to the battlefield.
It's a highly controversial prospect and the Pentagon is proceeding cautiously. In an early step last February, military officials rejected a congressional commission's recommendation that prohibitions on women in combat be lifted, announcing instead that they would be open, on a trial basis, 14,000 jobs previously closed to female service members.
"For me, I see it as talent management: I want to utilize the best talent I have," says the Army's top officer, Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno. "That's what has driven us to it: The women have proven it to us."
It's an acknowledgment that has been slow in coming within the US military but undeniable in America's murky counterinsurgency wars of the past decade, say senior Pentagon officials.
'Nose to nose with the bad guys'
As Congress was considering – yet again – the feasibility of women in combat through its 2011 Military Leadership Diversity Commission, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Peterson voiced the standard concern: "Here's my problem: We're talking about ground combat, nose to nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what's on your back, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you have seen how infantrymen, the ground troopers, live – and how many of you would volunteer to live like that?"
"I've lived like that. I've lived out there with the guys," answered Illinois National Guard Lt. Col. Tammy Duckworth from her wheelchair. "Mad Dog 06" – her call sign in 2004 when she was a National Guard captain – lost both legs at the helm of a Black Hawk helicopter shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq's notoriously violent Sunni Triangle.
"When I'm asked if the country is ready for women in combat, I look down at where my legs used to be and think, 'Where do you think this happened, a bar fight?' " she says. "I'm pretty sure it was combat."
Duckworth had wanted to be part of the fighting in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; and as a member of the National Guard, being a pilot was one of the few paths to a combat job for a woman.
She has not been alone in her experiences out there with her male comrades: The Pentagon's 1994 combat exclusion policy means that women can be "attached" to infantry units, in military parlance, but never permanently "assigned" to them. And so women are attached to SOF units in female engagement teams (FETs), for example, or to infantry units in jobs that include mechanics and drivers.
These are moves that put women in combat, but never officially recognize them for being there, notes retired Gen. Lester Lyles, who chaired the Military Leadership Diversity Commission. His entire panel ultimately came to the same conclusion and last year recommended lifting the prohibitions on women in combat. "We know that [the combat exclusion policy] hinders women from promotion," Lyles says. "We want to take away all the hindrances and cultural biases."
Pentagon officials promised to "thoroughly evaluate" the congressional commission's recommendation, but ultimately decided not to lift the combat exclusion policy. Yet even though the military agreed to open 14,000 jobs to women – in such areas as tank mechanic and intelligence officers "attached" to infantry units – there are still 250,000 military jobs closed to women .
Jobs newly open to women do not represent "a big change, and it didn't in any way, shape, or form eliminate this structural barrier" to advancement for many women, says Army Reserve Col. Ellen Haring. She has had a 28-year career – from West Point to the upper officer echelons – and says she will advance no further because her jobs have been "limited to support positions with no possibility to compete within the combat arms" – military parlance for infantry and artillery jobs on the front lines of battle.
She was selected in May as a plaintiff in a lawsuit demanding that women be allowed to fight in combat.
"This was really a soul-searching kind of process. I don't want to see anybody in combat, frankly," she says of her difficult decision to join the suit at the height of her career. But, she hopes the suit "will just be one more angle of attack on a really discriminatory policy that is completely un-American."
Culturally, the lawsuit – the first of its kind – strikes at the heart of conceptions of women in American society.
"There are arguments that the public is going to be so much more distressed by women being killed or taken prisoners of war that they will not support the war effort if they see it happening," says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville whose research led to the litigation.
The most vociferous arguments against women on the battlefield are often rooted in closely held beliefs about chivalry, femininity, and virtue.
"It is the notion that there is something more precious about motherhood and womanhood and domesticity and femininity that often drives the resistance to opening combat to women," Ms. Coughlin notes.
These are concerns that Black – the "Angel of Death" – understands, and that she confronted head-on in her training to become a gunship crew member. They included "ugly" scenarios, she says, like the possibility of being taken prisoner of war and the threat of being raped.
Black recalls a training exercise scenario with a fellow classmate in which she had been captured: "If a guy and a gal are captured together and they ask the guy for information, he's going to give his rank and serial number. If he doesn't give them more information, they're going to hit the woman. We try to do a really good job at teaching and exposing our air crews to those scenarios. We tell them, 'Hey, they know what your values are – and here are some ways to avoid it affecting you.' "
The fictitious captors told Black's classmate that he'd better give them the intelligence they wanted or "We're going to beat her," she recalls. "He just looked at me and said to them, 'Go ahead.' I looked at him and said, 'Thanks, buddy.'
"As a woman, I would be devastated if any man gave up information to protect me," Black says. "I would expect to be whooped up on and potentially raped – just like the guys do. It happens to them, too.
"I get the political landscape [of combat reality]," Black acknowledges. "I don't know if any administration wants to deliver women who are killed in combat. We raise our young boys to respect women, to open the doors for women, to be their protector. I like that about our country – I love that," she says. "But I also believe that women are just as capable as men, and shouldn't be denied that opportunity if they want the job and can do the job."
Former Black Hawk pilot Duckworth rejects the frequent arguments against women in combat: "So, what if I get raped? Lots of male POWs have been raped, too. It's no worse than losing my legs or getting burned to death. Trust me to have the intelligence to assess the risks and decide to take them in order to have the amazing privilege of serving my country."
Coughlin, the lawyer, expects that the lawsuit will have to confront many of these closely held cultural mores head-on: "I've found it best to take it really seriously. The problem with it is that it's the kind of argument that ends up, in fact, being deeply oppressive to women. It means you're not being allowed to do the very things that are the most prized in our culture – to die in the service of your nation is one of the highest virtues that we know. Excluding women from that possibility means that we're not full citizens."
The lawsuit will also address fears of "misplaced chivalry," Coughlin says of the notion that if a female soldier is in danger on the battlefield, her male counterparts will rush to save her instead of fighting intelligently.
"If a male soldier is protecting other males he gets the medal of honor, but if he does it for females it somehow becomes an act of crazed chivalry that places national security in danger?" she asks. "Are female lives worth more than male lives?"
Barred from combat; doing it anyway
Certainly men and women have been equally at risk throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Spc. Monica Lin Brown was an Army medic whose platoon leader admitted that the troops in the unit "weren't supposed to take her out" on missions throughout a dangerous Afghan province, "but we had to because we had no other medic."
During that time, Lin was "one of the guys," Lt. Martin Robbins told The Washington Post, "mixing it up, clearing rooms, doing everything that everybody else was doing." And in one notable case, more.
When her unit came under fire in 2007, Brown ran through gunfire to fellow soldiers who'd been gravely injured in a roadside bombing, using her body to shield one of the wounded when they came under fire from insurgents. For repeatedly risking her life in battle, Brown was awarded a Silver Star, only the second woman since World War II to earn the nation's third-highest combat medal.
She was following in the footsteps of Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, a military police officer with the Kentucky National Guard who led her team through a "kill zone" in Iraq after insurgents ambushed her convoy in 2005. After assaulting a trench line, according to US military accounts, she cleared two trenches with grenades and killed three insurgents with her M4 rifle.
Yet, even as they are awarded such commendations for valor, women are still officially barred from combat: A few days after the acts that would earn her the Silver Star, superiors pulled Brown out of the remote camp where she was serving.
One of the soldiers that Brown saved later told CBS that he still believes women have no business on the front lines of combat – feelings that continue to be, if not pervasive, then at least common within the ranks.
These beliefs are most often based on questions of simple physical strength: Can women perform the tasks necessary to keep themselves and their comrades in arms safe on the battlefield? Will letting them into the ranks of, say, infantry units or SOF mean lowering the standards for everyone?
"The answer to that is very straightforward: Create a physical fitness standard," says Coughlin. "That's all the litigation would ask for, or – to be candid – all that we would want."
Black agrees: "I would never want a woman to be a liability, and I would never want to be a liability. If there is a physical requirement and you meet that standard, then you should go."
Flying in combat
Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt recalls the physical strength she had to demonstrate to become the first female fighter jet pilot in American history as a young lieutenant in 1993. It was at centrifuge training, where pilots learn to withstand the g's – the force of gravity that they must pull to fly a fighter jet. For a 100-pound person, for example, pulling nine g's is the equivalent of suddenly weighing 900 pounds.
"Needless to say, you've got to be in very good physical condition to strain against those g's," Leavitt says. "All the blood is being pulled away from your head. If you can't strain against it, you cannot continue the training."
She recalls that early on, there was resistance to her flying: "I had someone who said to me point-blank that he didn't think women should fly fighters. He was concerned that the standards would change. But those standards are set – gender doesn't matter."
Leavitt has since served in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying F-15E Strike Eagle jets. "These are combat aircraft," she says. "And I have flown in combat.
"I don't obviously focus on the gender typically, but I do like the fact – and it's important that people see – that the Air Force has an environment where men or women can achieve what they want when they work hard, and those opportunities are available regardless of gender."
Today in her field, says Leavitt, "It's just really not an issue anymore, the gender thing, and I wouldn't tolerate it. The issue is the lethal employment of force whenever it is needed."
In June, Leavitt became the first woman to command an active-duty fighter wing.
"I've had incredible opportunities, to lead the men and women of the 4th Fighter Wing, to train all Strike Eagle air crew in the combat Air Force," she says, "and to employ precision combat air power in support of this nation."
Credit where it's due
And there are clear cases in which women have introduced new capabilities into combat units. FETs now accompany many units into villages. In a society in which men cannot interact freely with women – such as in Afghanistan – female US troops have been able to do just that.
Former marine Claire Russo points out that FETs often engage with men, too. She recalls traveling with one FET into a village that, once friendly to US forces, had turned hostile. Male military officers had visited the village for weeks to find out the reason for the violent shift.
Then the FET was sent out. "Within 10 minutes they were able to get the Pashtun elder to tell them," says Ms. Russo, an international affairs fellow at the Institute for Inclusive Security.
Contractors at a nearby US base had impounded the only village motorcycle, causing the village elder to lose face and income. "Afghan men don't find women as threatening," and sharing information with them doesn't cause them to lose face, Russo says.
"I use this analogy: Imagine the US is invaded, and eight men with assault rifles come to your door and want to talk to you about village security. Would you rather talk to them, or to eight women?" she asks.
The argument for women in combat should not be one of fairness, Russo says, but because "we see women as a strategic asset and an important part of how we execute our foreign policy."
Haring, for her part, says she believes that the Pentagon's combat exclusion policy has prevented her from reaching the highest ranks of her chosen profession. "You'll never see a division or corps commander who is a woman, because at that level they always select the most senior leader from the combat arms – and we can't get into the combat arms," she says.
Yet the historic lawsuit she has filed is not one that she has entered into lightly. She discussed what to do with both male and female classmates from her West Point days, where she graduated in 1984. "We went back and forth about it, and traded stories about it."
Haring says she has been touched by the e-mails and Facebook messages that have poured in. Women "always share a story about how the combat exclusion has limited their careers in ways I didn't even imagine," she adds. "Just so many little stories that add up to this institutional discrimination that bars women from reaching the highest levels of the military."
Special operations officers – all men – have contacted her to say " 'You're fighting the good fight.' I was shocked."
Haring has also been harshly criticized on blogs and in letters to the editor, and admits that she occasionally struggles with the implications of the lawsuit. "This idea that I'm pushing women into combat – what does that do for women?" she wonders.
Crucible of combat
Change continues to come gradually, millennia after Plato argued in The Republic that "what has to do with war must be assigned to women also, and they must be used in the same ways" – and centuries after women first disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.
In 2008, the Army nominated the first woman, later approved by Congress, to the rank of four-star general. In March, the Senate confirmed the first woman to become a four-star general in the Air Force. Last month, Army Chief of Staff Odierno announced that the service is studying the possibility of allowing women to attend the Army's elite Ranger School. Results of the study will be announced this summer.
For her part, Duckworth, still a National Guardsman, is running for Congress in her home district of Illinois after serving as the No. 2 official in the Department of Veterans Affairs. If she is elected in November, she will become Congress's first female combat veteran.
She is optimistic that her female compa-triots will join her in elected office. "I hope my sisters will be able to take what they learned in the military and what they learned in the crucible of combat and become leaders in civilian life as well." She hopes, too, that more veterans in Congress – male and female – will lead to greater scrutiny of war.
"The next war we get into, I would be able to stand on my artificial limbs on the floor of the House and question whether this is in the best interest of the nation – and maybe it is – and not have my patriotism questioned, or be dismissed as a typical female Democrat who doesn't want to spend money on defense," Duckworth says. "People know I'm willing to die for my country."•