BETTY ANN BOWSER: Twelve years ago, when America went to war in the Persian Gulf, women like Captain Rebecca Muggli weren't allowed to be combat pilots. Back then, women weren't allowed in any combat jobs.
But in 1994, to meet the needs of an all-volunteer military, the Clinton administration removed something called the risk rule. It had excluded women from any job that directly exposed them to hostile fire or capture. The change opened 80 percent of all military jobs to women. Today, they not only fly A-10s, they also pilot F-14s and FA-18s from aircraft carriers.
Even the Marine Corps now puts its women recruits through a final three-day program at boot camp, called the Crucible. It is so tough, that senior commanders once believed women weren't strong enough to get through it. In the war with Iraq, all this equality has brought pictures of women in harms way like never before. Army Cook Shoshanna Johnson was a prisoner of war for 22 days before being released. Before that, there were pictures of the dramatic rescue of Private First Class Jessica Lynch. One of America's war dead is a woman, Private Lorie Piestawa.
And this Air Force A-10 fighter pilot, whose plane was riddled with anti-aircraft fire during a mission over Baghdad, narrowly escaped death. She wants to be known by her nickname, "Capt. Killer Chick."
"CAPT. KILLER CHICK:" It was almost immediately I knew that I had been hit. I heard a very loud noise from the back side of the jet, and the jet rolled off to the left and started pointing at the ground. At that point, my concentration was completely on just getting the aircraft back flyable again, and just really getting myself out of Baghdad as quickly as possible.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Muggli was not surprised by the skill, nor the bravery, of Capt. Killer Chick, because the two trained together.
CAPT. REBECCA MUGGLI, U.S. Air Force: She's awesome. You know, anybody over there, I guarantee you, they all work hard in their training, and they know what to do. They would have brought that jet back. Capt. Jennifer Short wasn't surprised either. Like Muggli, she flew close air support for ground troops in Afghanistan. The two are currently going through a routine training rotation at Davis Monthen Air Base in Tucson. They know if they're sent to another war the possibility of being shot down is always there, just like it was in Afghanistan.
CAPT. JENNIFER SHORT, U.S. Air Force: For a second, I thought about it and went, "oh, man, this is really the fight." But the training that we do is so incredibly intense and real-time that your training kicks in, and it's not. And I'm sure that those people over there right now, flying A-10s, really getting shot at, really coming home with bullet holes in their jets, thought about it for about two seconds. The training kicks in and you know what to do, you know how to get home.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Women have been serving their country since the American Revolution, mostly in support roles. And even though they weren't allowed in combat jobs until recently, frequently they were exposed to enemy fire. In World War II, more than 400 women were killed, most of them nurses. In the Vietnam War, eight service women were killed. And in the first Gulf War, thirteen women died in combat- related incidents two were taken as POWs.
But it wasn't until 1994 when the risk rule was rescinded, that women were allowed to take jobs that put them in the direct line of fire. That opened up 260,000 new jobs, so that today, the only positions still off limits to women are in the infantry, Special Operation Forces, and on submarines.
Women also hoped the change might give them a better shot at promotions, which the men claimed they got from combat experience. Major Jill Long joined the military before women were allowed in combat. She's now an A-10 pilot, and says the main thing the rule change has done is given women the basic right to fight for their country.
MAJOR JILL LONG, U.S. Air Force: You need certain people to step up and protect the American way of life, which is what we do: Protect freedoms, protect democracy. And whether you're a guy or a girl, you need to realize that we need people to do that, and it's not based on gender.
MILITARY TRAINER: Okay, you're mission is to have the team cross the two-line bridge with the ammunition...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: While virtually all military leaders have accepted these changes, there are still some social conservatives who are uneasy with the idea of women in combat. Elaine Donnelly served on a presidential commission on women in the service, and runs a Washington advocacy group on military readiness. She wants the risk rule reinstated, because she worries about what happens to women, like Shosanna Johnson, when they're captured by the enemy.
ELAINE DONNELLY: I find it very unseemly for feminist advocates to point to her capture as a step forward for women's rights, or anything to celebrate. Frankly, I think the American people need to look at this policy much, much closer than we have, because I don't think we're getting the full truth about it. Women don't have an equal opportunity to survive in a combat role, or to help fellow soldiers survive. And we need to think about it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you mean they don't have an equal opportunity to survive?
ELAINE DONNELLY: There are certain vulnerabilities that are unique to women that could very well and probably have been applied in a way that would repel most American citizens who are against violence against women. You see, an endorsement of women in combat is really an endorsement of saying that risk of capture is okay, violence against women is okay, as long as it happens at the hands of the enemy.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That violence was experienced by Major Rhonda Cornum, released in 1991 after eight days as a Gulf War POW. She was sexually assaulted and tortured by her Iraqi captors. But the A-10 pilots we spoke with say they are prepared for the same possibility if they are shot down and captured by the enemy.
CAPT. REBECCA MUGGLI: There's a lot of different aspects to our training besides just flying. So we go through a scenario of what could potentially happen. And we go through it with men. And so, you learn how the dynamics work and how to take care of each other, but we all have a job to do, and you know, we're going to do it. And if that happens, then you deal with it, but...
CAPT. JENNIFER SHORT: And they give us the training to deal with that, same as they give the guys. Guys have training for that. So, we're getting equal training. But like she said, you don't go out the door thinking that you can't.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although women have been training under almost the same conditions as men, Donnelly thinks they won't be able to prove themselves in real combat conditions. But Lory Manning, a retired navy captain and director of the Women in the Military Project, thinks that's nonsense. She points to the 2000 terrorist attack on the U.S.S. "Cole" in Yemen as an example that women are meeting the challenge.
LORY MANNING, Women in the Military Project: Saving that ship from sinking was much more arduous than most of us really realized. And the women who were in that crew pulled their weight completely much more than people thought they were going to be able to, not just the physical strength, but enduring the conditions on that ship during the weeks of this damage control. Also, there were women in that crew who saved the lives of male crewmembers. So, I think one of the big questions that was answered was that, hey, your woman crewmember, your woman buddy is going to watch your sick, so to speak; you can depend on them.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And, the pilots say, when the history of this war is written, it will show that women performed well in combat.
CAPT. JENNIFER SHORT: There will be a story from this war or even the previous -- Afghanistan. You're going to have stories from all that in every branch of the military that they can say, "hey, look, see, females can do it. They got the job done just as well as the guys were doing it." So, certainly, there will be some good lessons learned on how females can cope.
MAJOR JILL LONG: They're going to wake up and smell the coffee and see that, yeah, there's a lot of different people out there, you know, different sex, different race, different creed, who can get the job done. And that's what it's about. And they're going to shift away from the focus of what's different to what's the same.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They also predict that many of the remaining restrictions on women in combat will be eased, as the military faces the potential for more combat missions around the world.