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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2003

Women get more duty in combat

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - Iraq's capture of at least one American woman - Army chef Shoshana Johnson of Texas - showed again that the ban on using women in combat roles exists in name only.

A video taken by Iraqi state television shows Ms. Johnson, 30, looking as frightened as the men taken prisoner with her.

The Pentagon says women make up 15 percent of the active duty forces - one out of six - compared with just over one out of 10 in the first Gulf War. Eight percent of those in the U.S. military are single parents, as is Ms. Johnson. Forty-three percent of the women in the military are married.

Technically, women still may not serve in the infantry, don't drive tanks, and cannot serve in the Special Forces. The idea is that they may not engage in hand-to-hand combat.

An advisory committee on women established in the Department of Defense recommended a few years ago that women be permitted to serve in all combat roles, but the recommendation was rejected.

Even so, 12 years after the first Gulf War, women fill many more battlefield roles.

In this war, front lines change constantly and women handle sophisticated equipment as well as men do. In this war, where Iraqis surrender and then ambush their captors, where air raid sirens go off in presumably safe areas, many women are just as much in combat as men.

Officially, women now serve on combat ships and in fighter planes, which they couldn't do in 1991. But they are still barred from about one-third of active-duty Army positions. In the Air Force and the Navy, women may serve in nearly all jobs, except as Navy SEALS and submarine crew members.

The Pentagon says that the U.S. military is dependent on women, who make up 15.5 percent of the Army, 18.3 percent of the Air Force, 13.3 percent of the Navy, and 6 percent of the Marines.

Historically, women have been dying in war as long as the country has existed. The Defense Department says 102 American women, mostly nurses, died in World War I, and 300 perished in World War II, either of injuries or illness. In Vietnam, 15 American women died. Two Navy women died in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole anchored in Yemen in 2000.

So far this century, women died when the Pentagon was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. A female radio operator was among seven Marines killed when their tanker crashed in Pakistan in January, 2002.

And in the first Gulf War, five American women were killed in action and nine more died in accidents. Two women were taken prisoner.

One of the POWs, Col. Rhonda Cornum, a flight surgeon, wrote a book about her experiences. The book describes her ordeal in graphic detail. She suffered broken bones when her medic helicopter crashed. She was beaten by her Iraqi captors and sexually assaulted.

The yellow POW uniform and the sling she wore on her broken left arm are part of an exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

Freed after the war, she serves as a colonel at Fort Bragg, N.C., and says there was nothing like the joy she felt when she came home.

Yesterday, she again described her experiences, saying she sang show tunes to keep up her courage. She said having women in combat is no longer an issue because in the war on terrorism, women aren't safe anywhere.

That includes the military academies, some say. Even as women are proving themselves in a second war against Iraq, allegations of sexual abuse in the academies have caused a major scandal.

Women in the military complain that laws against sexual misconduct are not always well enforced and that the prohibition on women serving in about 9 percent of Army jobs keeps many from being promoted as rapidly as men.

Recently retired three-star Gen. Claudia Kennedy, once the Army's highest-ranking woman, accused another general of sexual harassment. The man, who was in line to the Army's deputy inspector general, was forced to leave the service.

Under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services has become a political football and been purged of its old membership. A number of conservative organizations have branded the committee, which dates to 1951, as too liberal on the issue of women in combat.

At a 2001 ceremony honoring women in the military, Vickie McCall, then-chairman of the committee, complained that women still are not well accepted in the military. She said that women still have to prove themselves “over and over again.''

“They struggle with those artificial cultural barriers that suggest they have limited utility in our operational forces,'' she said.



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