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.
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.
Navy Cmdr. Patrick McLaughlin said his own nature as the father of four daughters made him feel more protective of military women when he served as a chaplain in Iraq. McLaughlin performed memorial services for two women killed in action on the same day, Feb. 7, 2007.
Marine Capt. Jennifer Harris, 28, of Swampscott, Mass., died when insurgents shot down her helicopter with a missile. Marine Cpl. Jennifer Parcell was pulling "Lioness" duty, a 45-day detail searching Iraqi women at a vehicle checkpoint. The 20-year-old, Bel Air, Md., native was killed when a woman she was searching detonated a concealed explosive vest.
"It really hits home for you as someone who's the father of baby girls," said McLaughlin, 47, of conducting the memorial services. "Those women were somebody's baby girls."
Still, he said, he has no problems with equality, with women serving in combat. "Should women have the same right to do everything as men? Yes, that's one of the things we fight for."
In last year's YouTube debate, Obama compared the role of women with that of black soldiers such as the Tuskegee Airmen, who served during World War II. "There was a time when African-Americans weren't allowed to serve in combat," Obama said. "And yet, when they did, not only did they perform brilliantly, but what also happened is they helped to change America, and they helped to underscore that we're equal."
But women and men are not equal in training standards or physical capacity, said former Army special operator Brian Jones, who is married to Michele Jones. Fifteen years ago last month, Jones fast-roped from a hovering Black Hawk helicopter into the bloody battle made famous by Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down. The clash pitted 99 U.S. soldiers against thousands of armed Somalis loyal to warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid.
For 18 hours, automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades turned the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, into a metal storm. Eighteen Americans were killed and 73 wounded, including Jones, who was shot twice-once, when a metal fragment ricocheted off a building and knifed under the skin of his abdomen; then again when a long-distance shotgun blast strafed his back.
While Jones was able to stay in the fight, "many of us had extreme wounds, meaning somebody had to carry those guys and keep them alive. The rest of us focused on staying alive by fighting with every stitch of intestinal fortitude we could muster-and then some," Jones said. "Three different times, we looked at each other and said, 'This might be our last few minutes.' But we were able to stick together and fight it out because of the level of training [that the all-male Task Force Ranger] had. There is no way a female could have made it to that level."
Also, Jones added, there's no way a woman could have carried the wounded to safety.
Feminist groups have long objected to such assessments, suggesting that women and men can perform with equal efficiency under fire. But the feminist vision of gun-toting American Amazons going toe-to-toe with enemy males does not reflect reality, as Jessica Lynch will tell you. After the Iraqi army captured the 19-year-old, 5'3" private, the legend of "G.I. Jessica" captivated the world.
On March 23, 2003, Lynch's supply convoy, from the 507th Maintenance Company, made a wrong turn: Instead of detouring around the Iraqi army stronghold of Nasiriyah, the convoy drove directly into it. The Iraqis shredded the American element with rocket grenades and small-arms fire, killing 11 soldiers and capturing five, including Lynch and her best friend, Lori Piestewa.
Initial news reports cited unnamed Pentagon officials who claimed Lynch fought back fiercely, emptying her M-16 into enemy soldiers, killing several. She was stabbed and shot multiple times, the story went, and only went down after she ran out of ammunition.
But Lynch, to her credit, later refused to take credit for unearned heroism. "I did not shoot, not a round, nothing," Lynch said in interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer. "I went down praying to my knees. And that's the last I remember." It turned out that Lynch's M-16 had immediately jammed. She then sustained serious leg injuries when the Humvee she was riding in crashed during the battle.
But that may not have been her most serious injury. Lynch's medical record noted that she "was a victim of anal sexual assault . . . [her] body armor and bloody uniform were found in a house near the ambush site."
Lynch, who discusses the rape in her memoir, I Am a Soldier, Too, told Sawyer that it was a difficult decision to reveal the assault, but "people need to know that that's what kind of people that they are, and that's how they treat the female soldiers that are over there."
Historically the mission of the Selective Service Administration is to provide a pool of potential conscripts during "a national crisis" and that, historically, that has always meant providing "combat replacements" for war. Since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the agency into existence in 1940, the United States has actually conscripted troops only three times-during World War II, the Korean, and Vietnam wars.
U.S. Census statistics show males outnumbering females in the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, but only by about 1 percent. That means that if Democrats succeed in changing the law to register women for the Selective Service, about half the pool of "combat replacement" troops in any future draft would be women.
In Iraq, Cmdr. Patrick McLaughlin dealt with the unspeakable: An Iraqi woman blowing up herself and a baby at a U.S. checkpoint. IED-hit soldiers missing chunks of flesh so large the doctors called them "shark bites." Insurgents blowing up his office (he wasn't in it at the time).
McLaughlin, 47, a Lutheran pastor serving as a Navy chaplain, prayed with a little Iraqi girl as she passed into eternity. He watched a young Marine, an Eagle Scout, die as soldiers discovered tucked in his helmet an ultrasound picture of his unborn child. And the chaplain found himself memorializing soldier after dead soldier, among them women and kids.
"At my age, I call them kids, anyway," said McLaughlin, who served 20 months in Iraq between 2005 and 2008. "Many of them were just 19, 20 years old."
And yet for all that, it was in Iraq that he came to his deepest faith.
He wasn't alone, McLaughlin writes in No Atheists in Foxholes (2008), a memoir of faith and prayer during war. "Back in the states, faith is not a subject people talk about much in the barracks or in their work spaces," he said. "In Iraq, they're not afraid to talk about it. Soldiers are very open about their faith with their peers and with the chaplains."
McLaughlin chalks that up to the immediacy of death. "You grow up real quick over there. All of a sudden, these young men and women see things it took me until I was 36 or 40 to discover."
Like the importance of relationships, of living life and not just treading water. McLaughlin has had military wives tell him stateside, "My husband's just different now. He doesn't like to do the things he used to do like watch TV or play sports all the time." Instead, he wants to spend time with his wife, play with his kids, go to church.
"I'm talking about soldiers who are 21 or 22 years old," McLaughlin said.
And it wasn't just the young guys who found their faith in foxholes, he added: "You would think a pastor would be close to God all the time. But the closest I've been to God in my life was in Iraq."