LT. EMILY J. T. PEREZ, 23, a West Point graduate who outran many men, directed a gospel choir and read the Bible every
day, was at the head of a weekly convoy as it rolled down roads pocked with bombs and bullets near Najaf. As platoon leader,
she insisted on leading her troops from the front.
Two weeks ago, one of those bombs tripped her up, detonating near her
Humvee in Kifl, south of Baghdad. She died Sept. 12, the 64th woman from the United States military to be killed in Iraq or
Afghanistan. Eight died in Vietnam.
Despite longstanding predictions that America would shudder to see its
women coming home in coffins, Lieutenant Perez’s death, and those of the other women, the majority of whom died from
hostile fire (the 65th died in a Baghdad car bombing a day later), have stirred no less — and no more — reaction
at home than the nearly 2,900 male dead. The same can be said of the hundreds of wounded women.
There is no shortage of guesses as to why: Americans are no longer especially
shocked by the idea of a woman’s violent death. Most don’t know how many women have fallen, or under what circumstances.
Photographs of body bags and coffins are rarely seen. And nobody wants to kick up a fuss and risk insulting grieving families.
“The public doesn’t seem concerned they are dying,”
said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University who has closely studied national service. “They would rather have someone’s
else daughter die than their son.”
What’s more, no one in the strained military is eager to engage
in a debate about women and the risks they are taking in Iraq because, quite simply, the women are sorely needed in this modern-day
insurgent conflict. As has happened many times in war, circumstances have outpaced arguments. They are sure to be taken up
again at some point, only this time, the military will have real-life data on the performance of women in the field to supplant
Like most soldiers on the job, Lieutenant Perez, who will be buried at
West Point on Tuesday, was focused on her mission, not on her groundbreaking role in a war that seems to have dispelled a
litany of notions about women warriors.
For the first time, women by the thousands are on the ground and engaging
the enemy in a war that has no front line, and little in the way of safe havens. In this 360-degree war, they are in the thick
of it, hauling heavy equipment and expected to shoot and defend themselves and others from an enemy that is all around them.
They are driving huge rigs down treacherous roads, frisking Iraqi women at dangerous checkpoints, handling gun turrets personnel
carriers and providing cover for other soldiers.
It is not so much the job titles that have changed — the policy
shift that allowed women to serve in combat support units close to the front lines occurred in 1994. Rather it is the job
“We are asking far more of our female soldiers than ever before
in history,” said Elaine Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative think tank.
But a line in the Iraqi sand exists. Under the 1994 Pentagon policy, women
were still barred from serving in ground combat forces — infantry, armor, field artillery — but are allowed to
serve as fighter pilots and on warships. In Iraq, women were not involved in the initial invasion; they did not clear insurgents
from Falluja; they don’t drive tanks or, in most cases, kick down doors in house searches.
They are also barred, technically, from “co-located units”
that support combat troops. A woman can serve as a medic, for example, but not as a medic in a unit that “co-locates
and remains” or accompanies a unit on the front line, like an infantry unit.
In reality, though, this so-called co-location is taking place, analysts
say, although it is unclear how widespread it is. The Pentagon has stretched the language of the policy, mostly because there
are not enough troops, men or women. It has done so because the language is fuzzy. An effort by some House Republican leaders
last year to challenge the practice was beaten back by the Pentagon, which argued that it could not sustain the mission without
women in these jobs.
“It says you can have female medics, but they can’t see combat,”
said Capt. Megan O’Connor, who served in Iraq for a year and a half in the New Jersey Army National Guard as a medical
operations and plans officer. “It’s all combat in Ramadi. It’s so gray. They put the rules down on paper.
It looks good. It reads good. But for a commander to implement, it’s impossible.”
“The women were itching for it,” she added, and accumulating
commendations and medals for bravery along the way.
Ms. Donnelly said the Pentagon was openly flouting current policy and
sending women out directly with combat troops, with no debate, no hearings in Congress and, so far, no consequences. She has
no qualms about women, who make up 10 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing the jobs they are assigned in dangerous
circumstances. That is standard. But to send them out with combat troops is illegal, she said.
“I have enormous respect for these women,” said Ms. Donnelly,
who opposes allowing women into ground combat forces. “My criticism is not of the women in the military. They are fulfilling
their responsibility to the greatest degree, and that, too, is unprecedented. The policymakers should not be ordering them
into areas that are not gender integrated.”
But the fact that the Army is successfully using women in this way is
likely to lead policymakers to revisit the rule, some analysts say. “It’s that policy that when this war is over
is going to have to change, even if we have to keep women out of the infantry per se,” said Lory Manning, a retired
Navy captain who is the director for the women-in-the-military project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute,
a nonprofit public policy group. “The next door to open is ground combat. That’s the last frontier. A lot of the
social conservatives have powerful feelings about training mothers to kill.”
Conventional wisdom has long dictated that women were not suited to the
battlefield — too frail, emotionally and physically, to survive combat pressure. Men, it was said, would crumble at
the sight of a bloodied female soldier, or put themselves at risk to protect her. The public would not stomach women coming
back in body bags or suffering life-changing wounds. And mixing men and women — with all the sexual and emotional pitfalls
— would strain the unit dynamic, which can lead to deadly mistakes.
Those sorts of arguments were revived last week when the former Navy secretary
James Webb, running for Senate in Virginia, was reminded of his assertions 30 years ago that women could not, and should not,
fight, assertions he has distanced himself from.
None of this, so far, has come to pass. “They are pulling their
own weight and performing as well as men,” Ms. Manning said. “And the American public is not any more upset about
women coming home in body bags than men.”
Mady Wechsler Segal, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the associate director for the Center for Research on Military Organization,
said succinctly, “If they weren’t doing a good job, we would be hearing about it.”
Certainly, women in Iraq and Afghanistan face different challenges, both
at war and at home. Incidents of sexual harassment on military bases are common enough, and fending that off without offending
peers and superiors is tricky. Sexual assault, while less common, only intensifies combat stress, leading to greater vulnerability.
It also leads to new complications. What if your attacker is also the person you must defend, or must defend you?
A whole crop of veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress and
lost limbs, circumstances that sometimes prove more difficult for women who often fill the role of nurturers to their families.
And there are practical considerations. Women on smaller bases in Iraq
often share sleeping quarters with men. Equipment in women’s sizes can sometimes be harder to come by. Some women use
newer forms of birth control to make their periods less frequent. Even urinating can become a problem. The military has disbursed
portable contraptions the women affectionately call a weenus, for use on long truck drives.
Women also face resistance among some male commanders, who are not keen
to put women at risk, some women who have served in Iraq say. But many commanders, they added, treated them no differently.
Capt. Tammy Spicer, who commanded a transportation company for the Missouri
National Guard, said women were often being watched to see if they are up to the job. Driving trucks is dangerous work in
Iraq, and her company drove a million and a half miles with no enemy-related casualties.
If anything was taxing, she said, it was in 2003 in Kuwait, when she and
four other women shared a tent with 45 men. The women shared showers with men, on rotation, and always got the worst hours,
she said. “Their bickering, their cursing, their body noises,” she said, laughing. “They would leave their
food out and we would have rats. There was no relief from men.”