‘No Women in Combat’? Tell It to the Kids


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Although everyone knows women face what amount to combat situations every day in Iraq, President George Bush says his policy is “no women in combat.”

“There’s no change of policy as far as I’m concerned,” Bush told The Washington Times in an Oval Office interview Tuesday. “No women in combat. Having said that, let me explain, we’ve got to make sure we define combat properly: We’ve got women flying choppers and women flying fighters, which I’m perfectly content with.”

Women are best known for serving in military police (MP) units. In Iraq, policing often equals combat. Tagging the Pentagon for the shift of women into battle, gave examples of women already in those situations.

Among them was Marine Lance Corporal Kay Barnes, a crew chief on a UH-1N Iroquois “Huey” gunship in Afghanistan. She is 30 and originally hails from Richmond Hill, Georgia. She talked about her experience in a recent Defense Department press release.

“They told me when I checked into my squadron they didn’t care if I were male or female, as long as I could carry a 50-caliber,” she said. “I didn’t expect a vacation out here. I expect to perform as part of a team and accomplish missions as they arrive. I didn’t see sitting around while my country was going to war without me.”

Probably the most publicized example of women in combat involved Army private first class Jessica Lynch, who was caught in an ambush of an Ordnance Maintenance Company supporting the Third Infantry. That unit included three women: Lynch, Army private first class Lori Ann Piestewa, and Army specialist Shoshana Johnson. Piestewa died from injuries she got when her vehicle crashed during the ambush. Piestewa was the first Native American woman ever killed in combat and the first woman killed in Iraq. Shoshana Johnson was shot twice and filmed by her captors on Iraqi television.

There are differing accounts of the number of women who have died in Iraq so far, but reports suggest it could be as many as 30, with perhaps two dozen dying in combat situations. According to a January Associated Press report, among the women who have been injured or killed are: Army private Teresa Broadwell, 20, who won a Bronze Star for valor for returning fire when her MP unit was attacked in Karbala in October; and Army private first class Rachel Bosveld, 19, who was killed in a mortar attack on the police station in Abu Ghraib that same month.

And back in October, recounted the death of Pamela Osborne, a mother of three, who’d been killed in a rocket attack that month.

The nonpartisan Women’s Research and Educational Institute (WREI) estimates that 10 percent of all the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are female. Overall, 15 percent of active-duty troops and 17 percent of National Guard and reserve forces are women. And more than 33 percent of active-duty enlisted women are African American.

The Clinton administration changed the rules to let them serve on combat aircraft and on ships. But they were banned from serving in land combat units.

In a letter to House Armed Services chairman Duncan Hunter obtained by The Washington Times, Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness, said, “Female soldiers, including young mothers, should not have to pay the price for Pentagon bureaucratic blunders and gender-based recruiting quotas.”

That they’re out there taking fire should surprise no one, least of all the president. “Women MPs in Iraq and Afghanistan are as much on the front line as they can be,” retired Navy captain Lory Manning, who heads WREI’s Women in the Military project, recently told the AP. “I’d say if they have the mental and physical toughness to do that, they have the physical strength to be in the infantry.” In April 2003, she told, “Unless we want to draft men, we have to take women. We have to have an all-volunteer service or go back to the draft. That’s the trade-off.”

In an interview with the Voice on Wednesday, Manning explained her position more fully. “No one is trying to put women in combat. That’s not what’s happening,” she said. “Women will not become members of infantry or combat units. They will continue to serve in whatever support capacities they are presently serving.”

The old notion that women should be kept from combat may simply not be practical anymore. “When that policy was made up, there was a different threat,” Lieutenant Colonel Chris Rodney, an Army spokesperson at the Pentagon, told The Washington Times in October. “We imagined a more linear combat environment. Now, with the nature of asymmetrical threats, we have to relook at that policy.”

Rodney cited the fighting in Iraq as typifying the new threat, with all soldiers, support or combat, facing attack by rockets, mortars, roadside bombs, and ambushes. “Everybody faces a similar threat,” he said. “There is no frontline threat right now.”