By this Memorial Day, nearly 150 U.S. female troops have made the ultimate sacrifice in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with over 700 wounded. Although Department of Defense policy precludes women from being assigned to ground combat-infantry units, women have for years served in combat situations where they're just as vulnerable.
Marine Lance Corp. Angelica Jimenez, 26, was one of them.
On June 25, 2005, Jimenez was riding in the back of a truck carrying 14 female Marines near the Iraqi hotbed of Fallujah. The all-female unit was tasked with searching and questioning Iraqi women at security checkpoints, ensuring they were not armed with explosives. Since females were not allowed to sleep at the checkpoints as their male counterparts were, every day the women would be driven to and from an American base, making them a visible target each time they hit the road. It was only a matter of time before their luck would run out, and that night, it did.
A car approached their convoy, moments before it ran straight towards the women's truck. Packed with explosives, it detonated on impact, enveloping all 14 women in a deadly fireball. Most of the women were severely burned. Two women died immediately, one later that night, in what would become the deadliest attack on servicewomen since 1991.
Jimenez was knocked unconscious. She remembers waking up, directly in the line of insurgent fire, her flak jacket covered in blood, her M-16 gone.
"Convoys are always dangerous, anything that involves going outside the base is dangerous, outside the base, those are all very much dangerous jobs," she said. Jimenez was part of a communications command, but was selected for the month of June to man security checkpoints into Fallujah, a role she served along with her fellow male Marines.
"We were doing the same thing," Jimenez said. "Women are just as capable. I don't like being called a 'female Marine' versus a 'Marine' -- we all graduated from the same bootcamp."
Since 1994, the Department of Defense's combat exclusion policy prohibits the assignment of women to any unit below brigade level when the unit's primary mission is direct combat on the ground. However, according to DOD spokesperson Eileen Lainez, the policy does not "preclude women from being involved in ground combat."
Blurring the lines further, the Army precludes women from being "assigned" to ground combat infantry units, but allows them to be "attached" to such units, where they often perform the same roles their male counterparts would.
"The nature of today's conflicts is evolving; there are no front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan," Lainez said. "While women are not assigned to units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground, this doesn't mean they are not assigned to positions in combat zones that could place them in danger."
The policy defines ground 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." Genevieve Chase, veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and founder of American Women Veterans, found herself in that situation while serving in 2006 in the hotspots of Helmand and Bagram, where counterinsurgency strategy emphasizes building relationships with locals including Afghan women who won't talk to a male stranger.