Sixty-one women in the U.S. military have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq — more than twice as many female casualties suffered since women were allowed to join the military after World War II. The number indicates that women are playing new roles in combat zones.
The new data comes from a report by the Rand Corporation examining how the Army assigns women to units in Iraq. The Pentagon released the report this month.
Department of Defense rules don't allow women in ground units whose mission is to engage in direct combat. But as Army Capt. Andrea So explains, those rules are difficult to enforce.
She says she came very close to becoming a hostile fire statistic during the summer of 2004. So was driving a truck in a convoy that was delivering a shipment to a U.S. base north of Tikrit.
"We drove in the gate," So said. "Spent about an hour and a half unloading our supplies on base. And as we were leaving to return, just as we were leaving out of the gate, an incoming convoy hit an anti-tank mine. So that was pretty frightening — because that was not there when we drove in an hour before."
The Rand report says the Army is following the Defense Department's policy by not assigning women to combat units. But the report also says the Army is technically violating its own rules.
According to Army policy, women like Capt. So may not be in proximity to the enemy. But in Iraq, there's no obvious front line; no one knows how to identify who the enemy is, or when — or where — they will pop up.
In 1948, women could only make up 2 percent of the armed forces. But towards the end of Vietnam, that restriction was lifted. As more women filled dangerous positions, some felt pressured by their male counterparts.
Capt. So explains what happened when she first joined her platoon in 2003.
"You had some guys who thought, 'Oh well, I'm going to have to bail out the women in certain occasions. If we're on a convoy I don't know how I'm going to feel if I have a female driver. Or a female gunner. Maybe I'd prefer to have a big strong man on the 50-caliber machine gun.'"
But she says those ideas didn't last very long.
"Guys saw that their female counterparts could really handle themselves, both driving huge semi trucks or handling the crew served that were keeping our convoys secure."
And commanders on the ground seem to agree. When Rand's researchers asked some of them what they thought of the language used in Pentagon and Army policies, one responded: "If the intent is to prevent women from experiencing combat. We're past that."