News » Cover Stories

‘How are they not infantry?’

Combat exposure for women soldiers complicates the old problem of juggling home and military duties.


TOUGH JOB: Lt. Bethany Jackson of the Air National Guard piloted Blackhawk helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers from combat zones in Iraq.
  • TOUGH JOB: Lt. Bethany Jackson of the Air National Guard piloted Blackhawk helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers from combat zones in Iraq.

There may be no better illustration of the complexities of the military's policies on women in combat than Col. Trish Anslow.

When Anslow, a member of the Arkansas National Guard, was mobilized in June 2006, she was commander of the 875th Engineer Battalion, based in Jonesboro. Their mission was to find and clear roadside bombs — a combat job restricted to men. In that battalion, women could be medics, mechanics — or the boss.

“I could command them, but I couldn't be in their shoes,” Anslow said. “That's part of the evolution.”

That evolution is bringing today's military women closer to full, real equality than a lot of us are comfortable thinking about. Not equality in the equal-pay-for-equal-work sense — although that certainly exists — but in the sense that women soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan get shot at, wounded, captured and killed, just like their male counterparts.

And for the first time in our nation's history, they routinely shoot back. Although women are still officially barred from ground combat, the realities of the war in Iraq have pushed that boundary to the point that it's all but meaningless. Women in Iraq operate .50-caliber machine guns defending convoys, pilot attack helicopters, go on raids with theoretically all-male infantry units that need female soldiers to interact with Iraqi women they come in contact with. At last count, at least 96 of them have died.

They are making greater sacrifices on the home front as well. One in seven soldiers in Iraq is female — a much higher percentage than in any past war. And like their male counterparts, they often leave children behind — even if they're single mothers, even when their babies are as young as 4 months old.

Whether that's progress or not depends on whom you ask.



For Anslow, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Anslow is 41, a graduate of West Point, a veteran of the first Gulf War. That war, relatively short as it was, was the first time women took on significant roles outside of nursing, Anslow said: They served as military police, and commanded troops at the captain level.

“Women did a great job showing we could do it,” she said.

And after that war was over, Congress removed laws that restricted women from combat air and seacraft. She thinks they'll look at what restrictions remain — basically, that women are barred from military occupations that primarily involve direct ground combat, like the infantry and the Special Forces — once the war in Iraq is over.

That's too late for Capt. Bettye Dufour, a helicopter pilot with the Arkansas National Guard's 77th Aviation Brigade. Dufour served with an air traffic control unit in Iraq, dodging mortar and rocket attacks on a regular basis. But, she said, a lot of women were doing much more dangerous jobs, and not being recognized for it.

“Right now, with the people in the 39th [Infantry Brigade], you have people going as gunners on the trucks — how are they not infantry?” she said. “They're doing the same job as the guys and can't get the same combat infantry badge. Their [record] looks like they could have been hiding back in the rear and getting mortared, but they're out there with the boys. They should be getting credit for it.”

In fact, the Army has taken a step in that direction just recently, according to Dufour's commander in the 77th, Col. Karen Gattis. It's created a new combat action badge, awarded to anyone — not just members of the men-only infantry — who's engaged the enemy.

Gattis is the first female commander of the Arkansas Guard's aviation brigade. At 45, she's been in the Guard for 27 years. Much of that time, she was the only female pilot she knew; now, there are half a dozen in her unit.

Among them is Lt. Bethany Jackson, 26, a native of Stuttgart who joined the Guard six years ago and was commissioned after she graduated from ASU in 2004. She works full-time for the National Guard Bureau — the federal agency that oversees all state Guard organizations — at Camp Robinson, and is also a Blackhawk helicopter pilot with the 77th. She flew medical evacuation missions in Iraq from September 2006 until September 2007, and was the only woman in her unit there.

She said she's not personally bothered by the fact that she can't be in the infantry or the Special Forces, because she's not interested anyway. “But if there's someone who wants to and can do it, I feel like she shouldn't be denied the opportunity.”

Jackson said she and other female soldiers receive exactly the same combat training as the men in comparable positions. “We all learned equally — the hand-to-hand combat, the weapons,” she said. “They just said, ‘We hope you don't have to use that.' ”

Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military Project of the Women's Research and Education Institute, said policy will eventually catch up with reality — as it always has in the past.

“Over the last 100 years, it's necessity-driven, whatever changes. It happens because it has to, and policy and law change later on.”

Right now, she said, the issue is “tabled” — the Army pretends it's not violating the women-in-combat regulations, and avoids a potential fight with social conservatives in Congress. If the composition of Congress changes, military leaders might consider bringing up the issue, she said.

Gattis spent her tour in the Gulf running an airfield in Kuwait. Every plane used in Iraq came through her airfield on its way in and on its way out. She said difference between what she was allowed to do as a young pilot and what today's female pilots can do really hit her one day when a group of Apache helicopters — a combat aircraft — flew in.

“They shut down, and females started climbing out. It was the first time it really hit home for me.”



Still, it's one thing to think about the women fighting in Iraq as strong, well-trained, capable volunteers. It's wholly another to think about them as mothers.

Tragic as it is for children to lose their fathers to war, we are at least used to the idea. But fair or not, it's a somewhat harder societal pill to swallow to imagine those children losing their mothers instead — or as well.

Yet that possibility is now routine. There have been about 195,000 women-tours in the five years of the Iraq war (one woman serving three tours would be counted three times), and many of those women have children.

It's particularly an issue in the National Guard, which has historically been attractive to single mothers because of the pay and medical benefits. Women in the active-duty military have access to support systems like on-base daycare and a built-in community of people who are in the same situation; women in the National Guard don't.

All members of the military, men and women, who have children are required to create a plan detailing who will take care of their children if they're deployed. If they don't or can't, they're discharged.

Gattis knows of a young single mother who was deployed to Iraq four months after giving birth — the maximum length of time the Guard allows a new mother to delay her deployment. Her baby will be walking and talking by the time she gets home.

If she gets home: The kind of young single mothers who find the Guard's pay and benefits so attractive are more likely to be enlisted, rather than officers, and are assigned to duties without regard to their status as mothers. This may be fair, and desirable, but it can also be uncomfortable to think about.

“Our female medic, she was leaving two kids behind,” said Sgt. Brenda Moore, who was headed to Iraq with the Guard to work as convoy support when she developed health problems that have kept her stateside. “Another had four kids. She left them. Another left her two. Maybe five were moms. … One of them I know had qualified as expert on the .50-caliber. A couple others were on the 240 Bravo — they were out there shooting expert on these guns. They were going to be gunners and assistant gunners — and they're the young single moms with the babies.”

Tech. Sgt. Tashon Velez, an active-duty member of the Air Force stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, had to deal with what's becoming a more and more common problem: She and her then-husband, who was also in the Air Force, were deployed overseas at the same time. Their sons, then 2 and 6, stayed with their grandparents for the five months they were gone.

Still, the most difficult part, Velez said, was coming home.

“My youngest one didn't want to hug me,” Velez said. “He was looking at me like, ‘Who are you?' That was hard.”



Where people like Anslow and Dufour see Iraq as a proving ground for women who chafe at the military's restrictions on combat roles, Elaine Donnelly sees it as “an anything-goes, Wild West situation” where women are being forced into situations where they don't have an equal chance of survival.

“The Department of Defense is misusing our female soldiers,” said Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative-leaning independent think tank that specializes in issues related to military personnel. “They're ordering them into situations for which they are not suited. … The definition I'm referring to is very specific: Direct ground combat means attacking the enemy. It's a position where female strength is indeed a factor. If you force women into these situations they are at a serious disadvantage. It's not fair to the women or the men.”

Donnelly emphasized that she's not questioning the abilities of or criticizing the women who've served in Iraq.

“Some of these women are very adventurous, very courageous,” she said. “They are doing everything that's been asked of them. But the Army is asking too much.”

Why is it happening? It's partly a reflection of the changing nature of war. The military's regulations were written when there was a definable front line; in Iraq, there isn't one. Everyone is potentially in harm's way. It's also sometimes the case that an infantry unit going out on patrol needs a medic, and the only one available is a woman. That's supposed to be against the rules, but, said the women interviewed for this article, no female soldier is going to say no when she's needed, and many actually welcome the chance to get closer to the action.

That's not sufficient justification, Donnelly said. If the military needs more men, they should recruit more men. If they want to change the rules, “they should make that case before Congress, and they should defend the consequences of that choice.”

But that, she said, would start a public discussion the military isn't ready for. Donnelly blames officials at the highest level, including President Bush, for the situation in Iraq. They've squelched public outrage over the number of women killed and wounded — and the sexual assault and abuse of those who've been captured — by emphasizing stories of heroic survivors and listing vague causes of death in some cases, she said.

“How can the American public react to what they don't know?” she said.

Donnelly also sees problems with how the military is separating mothers from their children for deployments that are unprecedented in length. She calls it “Rumpelstiltskin recruiting” — offering (particularly single) mothers better medical benefits than they could get in the civilian world, but at the price of leaving their children behind for more than a year at a time.

“My objective here is to say to young people, you need to know what you're getting into. You should not rely on regulations you think will exempt you from direct combat. If you do decide to start a family, you have to understand that long separations are part of the job. The working conditions have changed. That's just plain information. If that alarms families or reduces women in the military, then maybe the Army should rethink this.”

But Pat Gormley, a retired Navy officer who spent 24 years on active duty as a lawyer, said the military shouldn't do anything that would limit women's options because they're mothers. Multiple deployments are taking a heavy toll on National Guard personnel, she said. “But my point would be that it is the individual's choice. I lived in an era where those choices were made for you. A woman could be discharged for any reason.”

Gormley has served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services — a standing committee that was established more than 50 years ago to advise the military on all matters related to women.

“The things some of us did to open doors for women put more of them in harm's way,” she said. “More have died. Is that right? I think it's a choice for the individual. Especially in an all-volunteer military.”

Balancing a military career and family is a major challenge for women, especially in a field like aviation where the training requirements are heavier, Gattis said. She is single; none of the female pilots in her unit has children. One who's a newlywed is wrestling with the issue. She has enormous potential, Gattis said, and knows that would most likely be limited if she took time out to have children.

Manning said it's a mistake to assume that family issues are a women-specific problem in the military. A study done by the Navy showed that differences in how much sailors would tolerate being separated from their families split along generational, not gender, lines.

And there are other ways to help military personnel balance their careers with their personal lives, she said. For instance, parents could be allowed to branch into a different occupation with less potential for overseas deployment while their children are young. Or the military could establish a kind of sabbatical program where all service members built up a certain amount of long-term leave they could use for any purpose — caring for children or aging parents, going to medical school.

“All the branches are looking at it,” she said. “There are things they can do to help, but it's always going to be a job where people deploy and are gone.”



There are other difficulties as well.

You can't throw large numbers of men and women together in close quarters without sex becoming an issue — whether it's consensual or not.

More than 300 female soldiers have reported being raped by male soldiers in Iraq, Manning said, and it's safe to assume many more have gone unreported. Sexual assault in the military, particularly in a combat zone, may not be more common than in the civilian world, but it is more insidious. Victims may be stuck working with their attackers, living on the same base, walking by them every day. They may have to report the assault to their male boss — a thought that would send shivers down the spine of many a civilian woman. And they may face guilt over feeling like they've destroyed the cohesion of their unit by accusing a fellow soldier of something as serious as rape.

The military's record on handling sexual assault hasn't exactly been stellar in the past, but Dufour sees room for optimism. The Army has now instituted a system where women can report a sexual assault confidentially, without naming their attacker, so they can get medical treatment and counseling even if they're not sure they want to start a criminal investigation.
”That will help for sure,” said Dufour, who recently completed training to be an advocate for sexual assault victims.

Manning downplays sexual assault as a consideration in whether women belong in combat.

“The question with that is, where do you draw the line?” she said. “Do we all go around in abayas with a male escort?”

In war, she said, no one is safe — not even civilian women, who historically have been easy targets for conquering armies.

“There's no protecting anybody,” she said. “It ought to make us awfully careful about why we go to war.”


Add a comment