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Women in Combat

August 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Deep in the Mojave Desert, in blistering 120 degree heat, soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division did a security sweep through a dusty mock Iraqi village. Iraqi nationals were paid by the Army to play the role of suspected insurgents.

This kind of training goes on all the time at the Army’s national training center at Fort Irwin, California. But for the thousands of military women who now serve in combat support roles in Iraq, the training is more crucial than ever.

The Defense Department exempts women from jobs whose primary mission is combat. But many, like their male counterparts, are killed doing something deceptively simple: Moving around.

Lori Manning is the director of Women in the Military Project.

LORI MANNING: It’s the highway or the road now that’s now the combat zone because that is where those who want to attack wait to shoot their missiles or throw off their grenades or set off their IEDs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Capt. Amanda Bielski, who could have left the Army this month, decided to go back to Iraq because she felt the Army needs more people with experience leading convoys.

CAPT. AMANDA BIELSKI: When we go on a convoy, whether it’s a man or a woman, you still have the possibility of getting mortared. You still have the possibility of an IED — an Improvised Explosive Device — happening.

Even if you’re living on a forward operating base, like this one that we’re at right now, you have the possibility of getting mortared. So though we may not be in direct combat shooting at somebody, we are still in the line of the enemy’s capability of getting to us. So this is preparing all of us, whether we’re male or female, for those kind of realities.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As of the end of July, 41 women have died. That’s more than number of those killed in Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm combined.

But in culturally sensitive Iraq, there are some jobs that only women can do. Female soldiers are needed to conduct searches of Muslim women who may be hiding weapons. Army Spec. Keena Ray, who will be deployed to Iraq this fall for the second time, says most Muslim women won’t allow male soldiers to approach them.

SPEC. KEENA RAY: We were trying to clear out an area for our convoy to get through, and they wouldn’t move. They wouldn’t talk to the men. So they brought me over, and with an interpreter, a female interpreter, they actually cooperated with me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Iraq, insurgents strike almost every day. There are no clear combat lines, and convoys are a main target where a higher percentage of women serve in combat support roles.

This summer, three women — Ramona Valdez, Regina Clark and Holly Charette — were killed by a suicide bomber who attacked their vehicle near Fallujah. They had just finished searching Iraqi civilian women going in and out of the city; 11 other women were wounded in the attack. It was the deadliest day for military women since the war began.

Petty Officer Regina Clark was a Naval Reservist. A single mother from Centralia, Wash., she left behind her 19-year-old son, Kerry, and her mother, Melitta Fountain. It was the third time Clark had been called up since 9/11, and she was going to leave the Navy this fall. Kelly Pennington was her best friend.

KELLY PENNINGTON: I think it’s a terrible waste, you know, because she had her whole life ahead of her. She was looking forward to it. And this was her last run of the military, you know.

Yeah, and, you know, she had done her time; she’d served faithfully, wholeheartedly. And she was ready to give up, you know, to walk away from it and move onto something else. And she didn’t get that opportunity.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the letters Clark sent Pennington, and her mother, Melitta Fountain, she expressed concern about the growing insurgency, and said she was confounded by suicide bombings.

KELLY PENNINGTON: She never said she was worried about her safety. She just said that she didn’t feel comfortable. It didn’t feel right.

MELITTA FOUNTAIN: She couldn’t understand why some of those people just blow themselves up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Clark volunteered to search Muslim women suspected of hiding weapons. Pennington said Clark also cared deeply about the rights of Iraqi civilians, particularly the women.

KELLY PENNINGTON: I know how much she believed in it, and I know that you couldn’t have stopped her from doing what she was doing. And she always said that, you know, if she had to go, she wanted to go doing what she believed in.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Seated near Reservist Clark in the fatal attack of their vehicle convoy was 20-year-old Marine Ramona Valdez. Born in the Dominican Republic, Cpl. Valdez grew up in the Bronx, in a family that struggled financially. So she helped support her family with her military salary.

Valdez’ sister, Fiorela, said Ramona had made a deal with their mother, who was worried about her daughter’s safety in Iraq. The young corporal promised her mother that she wouldn’t re-enlist in the Marines if her mother agreed to move away from their dangerous neighborhood in the Bronx.

FIORELA VALDEZ: She wanted a better place, a more quiet place for my mother, like for me and my kids.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fiorela and her mother moved to Pennsylvania just two months before Ramona Valdez was killed.

FIORELA VALDEZ: My mother, she loved my mother. Wow, my mother was like the main priority.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fiorela Valdez doesn’t think the military should be putting women into potentially deadly situations.

FIORELA VALDEZ: They shouldn’t send women to Fallujah because that’s the most dangerous place over there, and everybody knows that. They should just know that they cannot send women over there because they’re going to get killed, and they know that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That’s exactly why Fort Irwin’s national training center spends so much time reenacting insurgent attacks. When the military suffers casualties like Valdez and Clark, they try to learn lessons from the tragedy, and incorporate that into training. They try to teach soldiers how to avoid, react and control the potential crisis.

1st Lt. Jennifer Ernest is in her second week of training at Fort Irwin. She is the platoon leader for Alpha Company 204th Support Battalion.

1ST LT. JENNIFER ERNEST: I’ll be the lead vehicle on the convoy, and my function is to handle land navigation, making sure that the convoy is on track, that they don’t get off on the wrong turn. We’ll have two Apaches coming with us for air support, and our trail vehicle, which is our gun truck.

If in the event we run into insurgents or an attack, then I would send them forward as need be, and determine a course of action from there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last week in training, her vehicle was ambushed by mock insurgents wielding grenades. The insurgents managed to take two vehicles and wound seven soldiers. It is a familiar scenario, and a lesson Ernest will bring to Iraq.

1ST LT. JENNIFER ERNEST: It’s no longer the linear battlefield of yesteryear. Today’s battlefield is everywhere. It’s all around you, 360 degrees. So today every soldier — man, woman, you’re a war-fighter first. You need to be prepared.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Because women are almost as vulnerable to insurgent attacks as men, conservatives in Washington recently tried to get Congress to legally ban them from combat situations, but that attempt failed. Capt. Amanda Bielski thinks that line of thinking is outdated.

CAPT. AMANDA BIELSKI: There’s no longer this idea that you can put somebody in someplace where they’re going to be safe, because there is no place safe anymore. So we really have to change the way we think of how war works and really accept the fact that everyone is going to be in some kind of danger, and to prepare everyone for that as a possibility.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Earlier this summer, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester of the Kentucky National Guard became the first female soldier since World War II to be awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. She killed three insurgents who attacked her convoy near Baghdad, and she said it was the insurgency training she got before she went that saved her life.