The Cost of Women in Combat

ByABC News
January 8, 2003, 1:31 PM

Jan. 14 -- 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.