Women Soldiers and the Wounds of War

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The war in Iraq and the increased role of women in the military has put American women in harm's way like no previous conflict. The deaths and injuries are taking a new kind of emotional toll at home for the families of the pioneers.


All this week we've heard about Lynndie England, a 22-year-old reservist facing charges at Ft. Hood in Texas for her participation in the mistreatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The image of Private England with a prisoner on a leash is possibly the most famous photograph of an American woman serving with the military in Iraq. A mistrial has been declared in the case, so her legal situation is muddled now. We can expect to see all those pictures over and over again until it's settled.

But there are many more women serving in Iraq. One in seven soldiers there is female. More than 30 women have been killed. Some have left children behind. That's high compared with other wars. In all the years of fighting in Vietnam, more than 50,000 dead, there are only eight women listed on the Vietnam Wall. All that has changed because the role of women in the military has changed and because so many women reservists have been deployed to Iraq.

I've met women who flied troop transports and cargo planes into Iraq, women who work at command and control behind the scenes helping to manage the war, and I've met women with all kinds of assignments inside Iraq. The ones I think about most often are the women who've been wounded, most of them by improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs. Informal-sounding names for weapons that leave soldiers often badly burned, sometimes missing limbs.

One woman told me she'd asked her nurses to take out all the tubes and move the machines away so that her children would not be terrified when they saw their mother for the first time back from Iraq. A husband told me that he and his father-in-law wept together, convinced that the woman they were sitting beside would never wake up from her terrible-looking injuries.

I met a woman whose daughter was very badly wounded. Although the daughter is slowly recovering and is in very good spirits herself, her father and her brother and sister are all so angry about what has happened that the family agreed they should stay away for the time being.

These soldiers are enduring great pain and great loss with considerable goodwill. They seem to see their injuries as just one more barrier that they will somehow get over or go around. They are pioneers in that women have never had these responsibilities in a war. They're not in combat technically. There is no battlefield in Iraq but, then again, all of Iraq is a battlefield and women are everywhere on it, along with men.

On Mother's Day tomorrow, we will all be thinking of the thousands of women in this country who've had children killed and wounded in this war. In this war, some of the killed and wounded are women and some of them are mothers.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Sweet Honey in the Rock at 18 minutes past the hour.

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