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Spc. Micah E. Clare/U.S. Army/AP

Realities on the ground

Veterans Day | As female soldiers die in Iraq, the push for women in direct combat gains momentum

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

Besides controversy, the war in Iraq has thus far generated a pair of grim and unprecedented bookends:

Lori Piestewa, Private First Class, U.S. Army, died 3/23/03. Hostile fire-
ambush.

Jessica Ellis, Corporal, U.S. Army, died 5/11/08. Hostile fire-IED attack.

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Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz., was the first American woman to die in combat in Iraq after her supply convoy fell under attack near Nasiriyah. Ellis was the most recent woman to die by the enemy's hand. The 24-year-old native of Bend, Ore., died this May when an improvised explosive device destroyed the Buffalo armored vehicle she was riding in. It wasn't her first encounter with a bomb: She had escaped another IED blast with cuts and bruises only three weeks before.

Since the U.S. invasion, 106 women have died in Iraq, 66 under hostile fire, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military and civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As military advocates remember these soldiers on Veterans Day, they recognize more women may face not only hostile fire but what the military calls "direct combat" under a new U.S. commander-in-chief Barack Obama. During his election campaign, the president-elect stumped on changing war-on-terrorism policy and improving the nation's image abroad. More quietly, Obama let it be known that he supports requiring women to register for the military draft, and that he wants to place them in combat.

Last year, during a YouTube debate, Obama said women should be required to register for the Selective Service, though "not necessarily in combat roles." But last month, Obama's national security spokeswoman Wendy Morigi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Women are already serving in combat [in Iraq and Afghanistan] and the current policy should be updated to reflect realities on the ground."

Those realities, however, reflect the fact that the Pentagon is routinely violating its own policies, said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness (CMR) in Washington, D.C.

In January 1994, Clinton defense secretary Les Aspin established the "direct combat" rule that still governs U.S. forces on battlefields today: Women may not be assigned "where units and position are doctrinally required to physically collocate and remain with direct combat units that are closed to women."

In Iraq, women are commonly assigned to units that supply and support direct combat units. Meanwhile, a March 2008 CMR policy paper documents several instances of women assigned to infantry, artillery, and forward support companies required by the Pentagon to be all-male.

Aspin's memo defined "direct combat" as "engaging the enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force's personnel."

That part of the definition is clear. But the next part, drafted before the terror war-in which U.S. forces fight un-uniformed, non-nationalist combatants without a defined battle front-may render the rest of the definition moot: "Direct combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, or shock effect."

"In Iraq, for the supply convoys, there are no front lines and there is no 'rear,'" said Michele Jones, an Army captain who commanded a truck company out of the 89th Transportation Corps base at Fort Eustis, Va. On Aug. 5, 2004, Jones dispatched a convoy to Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. "They were ambushed and I lost a soldier," Jones said. "I had one KIA [killed in action] and seven or eight wounded," including a female soldier who was shot through the leg. During the attack, the squad leader, a woman, behaved heroically, Jones said. She was riding in the passenger seat when the driver, a man, was killed. "She had to move into the driver's seat and keep driving through the ambush."

Still, Jones said commanding a war zone unit with up to 50 percent women caused problems. "There were a lot of times I was tasked to provide armed security for convoys staffed entirely with local nationals, all male. There was no way I was going to send women to provide security for a convoy full of nothing but foreign men, for obvious reasons."

Meanwhile, physical, sexual, and emotional dynamics conflict with mission priorities. "It's not a matter of opinion, it's just a fact," Jones said. "Women are not built the same as men. They cannot carry 150 pounds on their backs." Also, while Jones' male soldiers all knew they had to pull their own weight, they told her they felt more protective of women in the unit. That dynamic, while normal human nature, can change the outcome in battle, Jones said.

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