Oct. 25, 2009— -- The image of young women in a hot, dusty combat zone toting automatic weapons is still startling to some.
But right now there are 10,000 women serving in Iraq, more than 4,000 in Aghanistan. They have been fighting and dying next to their male comrades since the wars began.
"We're here, and we're right up with the guys," says Specialist Ashley Pullen, who was awarded a Bronze Star for valor in 2005 for her heroic action in Iraq where she served with a military police unit.
Technically they're restricted from certain combat roles. The Department of Defense prohibits women from serving in assignments "whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground."
Nevertheless, women serving in support positions on and off the frontlines, where war is waged on street corners and in markets, are often at equal risk. There have been 103 women who have been killed in Iraq and 15 others in Afghanistan.
What women can or cannot do in combat is not always clear in today's wars, and many say that the Department of Defense and Congress should reevaluate women's roles in modern warfare.
As female aviators, military police officers, and civil affairs officers, about 80 percent of the positions in the Department of Defense and 70 percent in the Army are available to women, according to a RAND study. Women make up about 11 percent of the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Covering their own hair, women Marines in Afghanistan are part of female engagement teams that reach out to Muslim women, and as intelligence officers investigating those who may be infiltrating the communities.
Last year, 19-year-old Army combat medic Specialist Monica Brown told ABC News she used her body to shield five wounded soldiers during an attack on her unit's convoy in southeast Afghanistan.
"That was my only concern, making sure everyone got out of there as fast as possible," Brown said. She said she wasn't thinking of the dangers involved.
And in Iraq, ABC News talked to Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester whose convoy had been ambushed south of Baghdad in early 2005. Hester was serving in a military police unit.
"When we first started taking fire, I just looked to the right and saw seven or eight guys shooting back at us."
Female Soldiers Earning Combat Medals in Iraq, Afghanistan
Both Hester and Brown were awarded the Silver Star for their bravery, one of many reasons why military leadership says these wars could simply not be fought without women increasingly joining the ranks.
In a review of the assignment of Army women requested by the Pentagon in 2007, RAND analysis shows that the Army is complying with the Department of Defense policy of 1994 assigning women in combat, but the Army does not always follow its own 1992 policy for women, which is more restrictive and uses vague language.
The RAND report recommended then that the Department of Defense revise all its assignment policies for women "to provide greater clarity and to better reflect the changing nature of warfare" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Nobody is saying women aren't in combat. I think just by being over there that you are in combat situations," said Dr. Margaret Harrell, a senior social scientest at RAND.
For instance, women can fly attack helicopters and patrol hot zones as military police, but they can't serve in the infantry. They can act as a machine gunner, but can't train to drive an armored vehicle. Women could be trained in artillery and assigned to artillery units, but not ones battalion size or smaller. Female medics can be substituted in to combat units on the ground, but not assigned to them.
"Policymakers should be aware of what women are doing well in Iraq and Afghanistan if they're going to change the policy to preclude women from doing any of those things," Harrell said.
Critics like Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a group opposing full integration of women in the Army, says the Army bends the rules through loopholes in the language without giving proper notice to Congress of what they're doing. Women can't be assigned, but they can be "attached" to direct ground combat units.
The Growing Role of Women in Combat
"The way they're going about it haphazard, about how that job can be best done, is a problem," Donnelly said. "There needs to be a serious discussion of exactly where do we want our female soldiers to be deployed and where they can be used to the best effect," she said.
The Army inserting women in direct combat without consent from Congress is a practice that's been going on for a number of years now, she says.
"It's gotten worse," Donnelly said. "It's the policymakers I fault in this. They are the ones responsible for deciding who goes where. The field officers are having to deal with problems like pregnancies, evacuation, sexual misconduct, romantic hostility. Right now people aren't discussing," she said.
Women sleep in separate quarters, and use separate bathrooms. However, female troops are much more likely to face the additional threat of sexual harassment and assault. Almost 15 percent of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have gone to the Veterans Administration for care have experienced sexual assault, according to "Women Warriors" study released this month by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
In the Navy women are excluded from submarine warfare, but earlier this month, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus says "allowing women to serve on submarines is an idea whose time has come," the Associated Press reported.