Our second group of writers will be blogging about Women and War. Journalists, experts, female soldiers and veterans share their experiences and discuss issues including women in combat, sexual assault in the military and inadequate benefits for female veterans. What do you think about women in the military? Share your thoughts, raise a question and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
During her 2003 tour in Iraq, Specialist Abbie Pickett drove in a convoy supporting the Army's 4th Infantry Division. If the infantry soldiers took fire, so did she. If they had to fire back, she had to as well. At times she stood on top of a dump truck with a semi-automatic, guarding soldiers as they worked a checkpoint, doing the same job the infantry was doing.
In 2003-2004, Army Specialist Laura Naylor served in Iraq with the 32nd Military Police Company, whose mission was to drive to police stations around the area to rebuild and guard them.
"One time we came upon a convoy that had got hit with an IED [improvised explosive device], and while we were trying to help the soldiers out we started getting shot at," Laura told me. "We had to search this house nearby, thinking they were the ones doing the shooting, and I was the lead person the whole way. I had a flashlight in one hand, a pistol in the other, and I'd kick the door open with my foot, look both ways, give the all clear, go to the next room, do the same thing.
"We were interchangeable with the infantry. They came to our police stations and helped pull security, and we helped them search houses and people."
The experiences that Abbie and Laura have gone through are shared by thousands of female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because these are guerilla wars, no front line divides combat from non-combat troops, and because women are allowed in "combat support" jobs, their work is often indistinguishable from that of the men. This is one of the reasons why more women have been killed and wounded in the Iraq War alone than in all American wars put together since World War Two.1
Yet, even with this reality staring us all in the face, the Pentagon persists in upholding its ban against women in ground combat. For at least two years now, Congress has been holding debates over this issue, questioning the logic of a ban that blatantly conflicts with reality. But the Pentagon holds firm.
For over a decade, military women have argued that the Pentagon's ban denies them the chance to rise in the ranks or win full respect as soldiers. They say that being seen as inferior adds fuel to the disrespect and persecution they so often receive from men. And many female troops are reporting a cruel Catch-22 when they come home from war and seek benefits for physical or mental wounds. "You can't have received that wound in combat because women aren't allowed in combat," they're told. "Request denied."
The fact is, women want equality and recognition, and even though not all women will choose to join a ground combat unit, just as not all men do, they want the choice to be theirs, not the government's.
"War doesn't give a damn what your job is, we're getting killed anyway," said Miriam Barton, an army sergeant who served in Iraq from 2003-2004 as a heavy gunner with an engineering unit. "We're getting blown up right alongside the guys. We're manning whatever weapons we can get our little hands on. We're in combat! So there's no reason to keep us segregated anymore."
Miriam's argument makes sense to me. It's absurd to ban women from a job they are already doing. The ban encourages military men to denigrate and resent women, and it excludes women from the recognition and medical treatment they deserve. Furthermore, denying a woman a job she wants to do, and knows she can do well, is archaic and patronizing.
But before I rush to the cause of lifting the ban, a word of caution. Women are already suffering epidemic rates of sexual harassment and assault in the military, (In 2003, a survey of female veterans found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military. A 2004 study of veterans who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while serving. And a 1995 study of female veterans of the Gulf War and earlier wars found that 90 percent had been sexually harassed.)2
Lifting the combat ban by itself will only make these conditions worse. Other changes to military policy must be implemented alongside lifting the combat ban:
Many military women feel able and ready to serve in ground combat if called to do so. But we cannot ask them to take this risk and at the same time expose them to misogyny and persecution. We are doing that too often as it is.
1. Department of Defense Databases, Profile Ever Deployed, March 31, 2008 and Females in GWOT As of September 6, 2008.
2. Anne G. Sadler et al., "Women's Risk of Rape." American Journal of Industrial Medicine 44 (2003).
Anne G. Sadler et al., "Gang and Multiple Rapes During Military Service: Health Consequences and Health Care," Journal of American Medical Women's Association 60, no. 1 (2005).
Maureen Murdoch, "Prevalence of In-service and Post-service Sexual Assault among Combat and Noncombat Veterans Applying for Department of Veterans Affairs Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Disability Benefits," Military Medicine 169, no. 5 (2004).
M. Murdoch and K. L. Nichol, "Women Veterans' Experiences with Domestic Violence and With Sexual Harassment While in the Military," Archives of Family Medicine 4, no. 5 (1995): 411-18.
Journalist, Professor and Author of The Lonely Soldier.
Final Thoughts: Why Writing and Reading About War Matters »
Mothers in the Military: Reconciling Being a Mother with Being a Soldier »
Sexual Assault in the Military: A Nation's Shame »
The Combat Ban: Female Soldiers Are Already in Combat »
Introductions: Why I Had to Write About Women and War »