Women Soldiers' Roles Are Unprecedented

There's Jessica Lynch, captured in the early days of the conflict in Iraq when the front lines came to her, and Shoshana Johnson, who was wounded and taken prisoner. And Lori Piestawa, the first female soldier to die in combat in Iraq.

The Iraq war is showing women in the full range of wartime activities — even the worst ones, as evidenced by the images of alleged Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

"This kind of abuse, where it's sexualized with the purpose of humiliating the person, happens in many historical wars, generally by all men," said Joshua Goldstein, who writes about gender and war. "And I would have thought it's one of the last places that women soldiers would integrate into, you know, the sexualized abuse of the enemy to humiliate them. But apparently, I shouldn't have been surprised."

The images of war include Pfc. Lynndie England, from small-town America, shown in photos posing with humiliated Iraqi prisoners. And Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib prison and is now been suspended from commanding the 800-member military police brigade while under investigation.

Though she is the highest-ranking woman in the theater, Karpinski's alleged role reflects more on her than it does on women in the military, according to Lory Manning, who heads a research center on women in the military.

"Certainly, it's the sort of thing that, from the time I was a young officer onward, we were always told we had to be better than the men because there were so few of us," Manning said. "I think we're beyond that now, but I certainly think that everybody has noticed that she's a woman … it means that the first time that you see a shot of [the incident,] and here's the commander, it's, 'Oh, my gosh, it's a woman.' Beyond that, it's hard to say what it means."

One could argue it is a twisted tribute to gender integration in the military. Females are now 15 percent of the active armed forces — 20,000 more than in the Gulf War. Twenty-four percent of the reserves are women, and women's names now count among the worst — and the best — in Iraq.

Expanded Roles

More women soldiers have been killed in Iraq than any other conflict since World War II, when the 200 women killed were nearly all nurses. In Iraq, at least 140 women have been wounded. Thirteen have been killed by hostile fire. They served as mechanics, drivers, helicopter pilots, military police and a chief warrant officer.

Among them was Michelle Witmer, 20, one of three sisters who joined the Wisconsin National Guard.

"Most of us haven't had to pay a nickel of tax more to support this war, and here's a family giving three daughters — not just sons and daughters, but three daughters — which really hasn't happened before and it's, in some ways, the newness of it," Manning said.

After Michelle's death, her sisters, Rachel and Charity, struggled with a difficult decision — remain home or return to their unit and join the men and women with whom they've formed a bond, what the military calls unit cohesion. They stayed stateside, but said it was a tough choice.

"We think about male bonding as something unique, but historically, it's been almost all men on the battlefield and bonding is very important on the battlefield," Goldstein said. "It's very hard to get soldiers to fight in wars because it's a horrible experience. What makes them do it? It's their connection with those buddies on the battlefield whose lives are in their hands and who they count on to watch their backs."

They join for a variety of reasons — for an education, for a job, for adventure. In the all-volunteer U.S. military, with females at 10 percent of the force in Iraq, the Pentagon says it can no longer go to war without them.

"I think the debate over women in the U.S. military is over in the sense that the idea that, you know, it should be an all-male institution. That debate is over," Goldstein said. "The debate about where exactly the line should be drawn, about combat vs. noncombat, that goes on, but it's getting near over. It's really getting down to smaller differences."

Female Heroes

Army Pvt. Teresa Broadwell had to stand on tiptoe to see through the sights of her powerful M-249 machine gun. "My nickname, everybody calls me Little Itty-Bitty Teresa," she said. "I'm a real small girl, only 5 [feet] 4 [inches]."

There is nothing small about her dangerous job, a gunner with the 194th Military Police Company. While the Army prohibits women from serving in combat units, Iraq has blurred those lines.

For example, Terry Dorn, a captain in the military police and the first female commander of the 194th Military Police Company, was in the Iraqi city of Karbala when the shooting started last October.

"It sounded like war, honestly. There was gunfire everywhere," Dorn said. "You could hear it from the back of the police station, and one of the members of my platoon said it sounded like World War II out there.

"The street was one of the main streets, but it was also a narrow market street, so it was quite busy, a lot of high buildings, so bullets and hand grenades and RPG rounds were coming from all directions."

With three American soldiers already down, machine gunner Broadwell had to cover her lieutenant as he jumped out to try to rescue the fallen Americans. "They hadn't even stopped the truck when we started taking fire," Broadwell said.

She started shooting back. "As soon as I heard them shooting at us, you really don't have time to think abut it — it just happens, it just comes to you. You just do it. You really don't have much time to think about it."

Broadwell was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for her role in the firefight. She's home now, after a 30-day leave, at Fort Campbell, Ky. — a war hero at 20.

"When people go around and say, 'This is Teresa Broadwell, she's a hero,' it makes me feel a little awkward," she said. "I've never even pictured something like this happening to me, not at all."

Her war medals are packed away, but not the memories. She thinks of Iraq often. "It's something that I'd like to be able to put in the back of my head," she said. "It kind of pushes through a lot and it's kind of something that you can't get your mind off of."

Soldiers First

Col. Ashton Hayes, who has been in the military police for 17 years, said for women soldiers, the mission in Iraq was different than any other. "I mean, there were women who were putting round on targets, constantly. There were women who were training Iraqi police. Every mission that we did as the military police had women involved in it," he explained.

Women now make up 23 percent of the military police force. Many of them join, Hayes said, because there are no limitations on jobs for female MPs. "If the women meet the standards, they become soldiers, and it just kind of blends into everybody being a green person … or tan, depending on your uniform."

It's the Army's way of saying that everyone is a soldier first. There are differences — such as the official ban on women in combat. But in the chaos of Iraq, military police units are often on the front lines.

"I'm sure that many people are already looking at military police right now thinking, 'How did that happen? How did that slip by? How did these women get up on the front lines?'" Dorn said.

But she said that Iraq has shown what women can do. "Some people, some Americans don't believe that mothers should be out there fighting on the front lines. And I understand why that's the reason," she said. "But myself being in the military, I don't think there should be any difference."

Mothers in Combat

There were several single mothers serving with the 194th in Iraq, including Tonya Marr, whose mother takes care of her 5-year-old daughter, Haven, while she's away. "We just told her I had to go to a faraway place to help a lot of people that needed help," Marr said. "That's all she knew. She really doesn't understand the concept of it."

Pvt. Stephanie Chahal is from a military family — her mother and grandmother served. "No one in my family would ever have said, 'Oh, you can't be in the Army, you're a girl,' " she said, adding that her brother is very proud of her.

Spc. Stephanie Young, who was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries in Iraq, has her sister take care of her kids. "My oldest two understand, you know, that I'm a soldier. They know what the Army's about," Young said. "But my youngest two just know Mommy goes to work and she'll be home sooner or later."