Jan. 14, 2003 -- A few days before her Chinook helicopter crashed in Saudi Arabia, Maj. Marie Rossi cheerfully told a news team there was really no need to make a song and dance about her job on the battlefront.
"What I am doing is no greater or less than the man who is flying next to me," the 32-year-old U.S. Army pilot told a CNN team in the scorching Saudi Arabian desert during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But a day after the cease-fire agreement that ended the war, the Oradell, N.J., native was killed when her helicopter hit an unlit microwave tower, and suddenly her job did indeed capture the attention of a nation flush with the victory of Operation Desert Storm.
Like 12 other fellow servicewomen who died during the 1991 Gulf War, Rossi came home in a body bag to a grieving family, somber military ceremonies and commemorations. In death, the 13 women turned into bittersweet symbols of the long journey women in the U.S. military have made.
In many ways, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was a watershed for women in the U.S. military. More than 40,000 servicewomen went to war and one out of every five women in uniform was deployed in direct support to the Gulf War, according to the Department of Defense.
Of the 13 U.S. servicewomen killed in the 1991 Gulf War, four of them were from enemy fire, including three servicewomen who were killed by an Iraqi Scud missile attack. Twenty-one women were wounded in action, and two were taken prisoners of war.
It was, according to Capt. Lory Manning (U.S. Navy retired) and current director of the Center for Women in Uniform at the Women's Research and Education Institute, "the largest deployment of women to a combat theater." The number was a steep climb from the approximately 7,000 servicewomen — mostly nurses — who served during the Vietnam War.
Twelve years since the launch of Desert Storm, as hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops head to the Persian Gulf region, experts predict that if there is a war with Iraq this year, the number of U.S. women serving in the combat theater would exceed the 40,000-odd Desert Storm figure.
And with it, it would also increase the likelihood of U.S. women in uniform being wounded, killed, or taken prisoners of war while in the line of service.
Storming the Military Glass Ceiling
By all accounts, women in the military have come a long way, but it's been a slow, hotly contested fight to gain the right to die in combat.
Following their distinguished service in the 1991 Gulf War, there was a concerted initiative to expand combat assignments for women in uniform. In 1994, an order signed by then-President Bill Clinton permitted women on combat ships and fighter planes.
Today, about 200,000 women make up 15 percent of the military and experts say that in the event of a war in Iraq, women are likely to serve in many more job positions and occupations than the 1991 Gulf War, with the 1994 order making women eligible to apply for approximately 92 percent of the jobs in the U.S. military.
But some experts warn that beneath the impressive array of figures, American women in the military are still fighting a pitched battle for gender equality and the bugle call marking the end of a gender war in the U.S. military is a long time coming.
A 1997 study on women in the military by RAND's National Defense Research Institute found that only 815 of the 47,544 military jobs opened to women in 1994 were occupied by women. And in an interview with the Washington Post in October, 1997, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, called "allegations that commanders have been allowed to stonewall decisions made by the Department of Defense" with regard to the assignment of women in combat-related positions "particularly troubling."
The Fight Over Fighting Women
Even more contentious than the failure to fill available military positions, has been the issue of combat positions denied to women. Although the Air Force and the Navy have opened up virtually all combat jobs to women, servicewomen are still officially forbidden from serving in combat on the ground.
The exclusion bars women from infantry, armored and most field artillery units as well as special forces units among others. And according to many experts, it imposes a limitation on potential promotions and on how far women in the military can rise.
It's a prohibition that Robin Gerber, senior scholar at the Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, calls an effort aimed at "moving women back to the mess hall."
While some reports have cited opposition among top Army brass to fully embrace the spirit of the 1994 order, Gerber says the main assault came when "the Pentagon leveled its big guns" at DACOWITS (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services), a volunteer civilian agency within the Defense Department that was founded in 1951 to fight for equal opportunity for women and to keep top Pentagon officials apprised of the realities faced by women in the military.
Sisters at War
But the move to allow women in combat has met with vociferous opposition from a number of organizations — such as the Washington-based Center for Military Readiness (CMR) and the Virginia-based Independent Women's Forum (IWF) — that have denounced DACOWITS' initiatives to allow women to serve in combat units.
Citing a number of reasons, including the "power of the sex drive when young women and men, under considerable stress, are mixed together in close quarters," the IWF, for instance, calls for a "commonsense" approach to the issue of women in combat.
"The concept of equality does not fit in combat environments," said Elaine Donnelly, CMR president. "I think the priority has to be military efficiency in accomplishing the mission quickly and effectively with minimal casualties. Women in combat units endanger male morale and military performance."
Couching Real Fears
But while the primary fear among those who oppose women's participation in combat rests, to a large extent, on the horror of women being killed or captured in war, David Segal, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, says that several conservative groups use the issue of military efficiency to "couch their opposition to women's participation in the military."
Experts say that before the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon itself fretted about a public opinion backlash if American women were captured or killed in the war.
But many say it was a fear that largely proved unfounded. Across the board, the grieving families of the 13 servicewomen killed during the Gulf War expressed pride over their loved ones' heroic service.
And of the two women taken prisoner, Army Specialist Melissa Rathburn-Nealy of the 233rd Transportation Company testified that she was treated well by the Iraqis. The second female POW, Maj. Rhonda Cornum, an Army flight surgeon, testified before a presidential commission on women in the military that the Iraqis had sexually molested her.
Cornum went on to serve as a colonel commanding an Army medical unit in Tuzla during the U.S. operation in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. And in a report in the New York Times, she explained her delay in publicly declaring her molestation and the very brief mention the incident received in her book She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story as a "concern" that her mistreatment would be "blown out of proportion and would be used by those who want to keep women out of combat."
Women in Men’s Clothing
Until fairly recently, war was considered men's business, with most generals keen to keep the horror of it away from women.
But throughout history, they have not been entirely successful. Across the world and through the centuries, women warriors have gone into battle with their menfolk through fair means and foul for the love of the land, tribe or adventure.
In the 7th century, Nusaybah bint Kaab was one of the most celebrated women warriors, who fought in many of the early Muslim battles, including the gruesome battle of Uhud, when she helped save the Prophet Muhammad's life. In India, Rani (queen) Laxmibai's epic battle against the British in 1858 is widely believed to have sown the seeds for the country's successful anti-colonial struggle.
And if Joan of Arc was France's most celebrated female warrior, the annals of British history are crowded with the exploits of brave women who disguised themselves as men to fight on the battlefront.
It was a pattern duplicated in America during and after the War of Independence, when Margaret Corbin replaced her slain husband in an artillery unit in 1776 and when Lucy Brewer — disguised as George Baker — served in the War of 1812 aboard the USS Constitution. Brewer is acknowledged as the first female Marine.
But it was World War I that posed the greatest challenge to the military male bastion. With war moving from the battlefields into civilian zones, women gradually worked their way into medical units and by World War II, their position in the military was enhanced, although women in the United States' armed services did not serve in direct combat.
Nearly a million women served in the Soviet Armed Forces during World War II, including several decorated women snipers, such as Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to tour the United States.
Many experts believe that conservative opposition to women in combat notwithstanding, history is on the side of fighting women. With a growing international move to include women in combat missions — Canada, South Africa and a number of Scandinavian countries allow women on ground combat missions — the times, they say, will simply catch up with the U.S. armed forces.
On his part, Segal dismisses arguments that the pressures of women in the military put a greater burden on military families than those with male military members.
"This view seems to think it's OK for men who are fathers to leave their children," said Segal. "Military families adapt whether male or female members are in the military. And if they can't adapt, they get out. Family commitments are one of the major reasons for men getting out of the military."
Many sociologists such as Segal maintain that the American public, for the most, is supportive of women playing an enhanced role in the military. And by all accounts, American military families appear to support the idea of their female members in combat.
On a blustery afternoon on March 11, 1991, as hundreds of military men and women gathered at the Arlington National Cemetery, Maj. Rossi's husband, John Cayton — then a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Army — paid a deceptively simple tribute that acknowledged the complex polarities of Rossi's personal and professional lives.
"I prayed that guidance be given to her so that she could command the company, so she could lead her troops in battle," he told a somber gathering of hundreds of military men and women. "And I prayed to the Lord to take care of my sweet little wife."