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.

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