Iraq War Has Claimed Lives of 25 Female Soldiers

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As women take a more visible role than ever before in the conduct of an American war, 25 female soldiers have died in the Iraq campaign so far. Nearly 300 others have been wounded.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To Iraq now, where many military women view the debate in Washington with a mix of disbelief and some resentment. NPR's Eric Westervelt spoke with some of them at a forward operating base in southeast Baghdad.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Eight male soldiers in full battle gear stand attentively in a semicircle around Staff Sergeant Teresa Lott(ph) as she gives the briefing for the day's mission.

Staff Sergeant TERESA LOTT (US Army): If we get hit with small arms, continue through the context. If you can positively identify where it's coming from, put down suppressive or lethal fire. IED, no casualties, no vehicle damage, continue through the context.

WESTERVELT: Lott's unit travels Iraq's dangerous roads most every day to pick up vital supplies--bullets, parts and sometimes people--from other forward operating bases, or FOBs, in Greater Baghdad. During one recent trip, a car bomber attacked her convoy. No one was seriously injured. It's just one more road risk in an insurgent conflict that has few, if any, boundaries.

Sgt. LOTT: There's not a front line here. Everywhere you go, the minute you come out this FOB, it's a front line to me--everywhere you go around here.

WESTERVELT: Of course, that nebulous front line can also reach inside the camp's thick-walled perimeter. Insurgent rockets again struck Forward Operating Base Rustmiyah on Tuesday. The base has also come under small arms fire, and a suicide bomber attacked the main gate.

Lott has spent 12 of her 31 years in the Army. The single mother from California recently re-enlisted for eight more years. A veteran of the US invasion of Iraq, Lott says any move in Congress to restrict the role of women in the military or increase congressional oversight is misguided and misinformed.

Sgt. LOTT: It's kind of silly. Most of us have two and three combat patches already. That would put women back into jobs like desk jobs and maybe cooks and finance and everything else instead of the jobs that we are trained already to do. I came in the Army to do a specific job, and that's what I want to do. I don't want to change my job because somebody in Congress said, `OK, we need to protect female soldiers,' which I don't agree with.

Sergeant TABITHA CALLOWAY(ph) (US Army): Yeah, there's some tow bars they had ordered a while back. They finally came in, but they didn't have anywhere else to store them.

WESTERVELT: Sergeant Tabitha Calloway has worked in a service support unit for all of her nearly 10 years in the Army. The Arkansas native is the only female mechanic in Battalion 1-64 Armor. She repairs tanks, Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and more.

Sgt. CALLOWAY: Either you're competent at your job or you're not, male or female. I carry my 50-pound toolbox like everybody else, and now they're taking it back to a kinder, gentler time when actually war's getting harsher. It's not getting kindler and gentler.

WESTERVELT: Sergeant Calloway says to be a successful non-commissioned officer, or NCO, in charge of soldiers, it's vital she be allowed to go where they go. She says it's absurd to think that military women can somehow be moved out of harm's way when the bullets start to fly, especially in an age of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Sgt. CALLOWAY: For me, as a leader, an NCO, for you to tell me, `Make sure your soldiers are ready to engage in combat, but should that engagement happen, you will not be there,' is just ludicrous. I should be able to be with them. I have--it's my job to make sure they're trained to react under any situation. To say that my soldiers can roll and I can't, that shakes their faith in me as a leader, I believe.

WESTERVELT: Twenty-three-year-old First Lieutenant Lauren Roe is a military police platoon leader in charge of nearly four dozen MPs here. She says she's undecided about whether women should be allowed to join armor or infantry combat units. But for every other Army job, Roe says, men and women receive the same training and should be left alone to do their jobs.

First Lieutenant LAUREN ROE (US Army): My thing is if somebody's willing to come here for a year, put their life in the line for, you know, people they don't know, for strangers, for a country that, you know, they've never been to, then let those people serve in the full capacity.

WESTERVELT: Many of the male officers and NCOs agree. Some worry any Capitol Hill move to increase congressional oversight of women's roles could harm unit cohesion and effectiveness during wartime.

First Sergeant DOUGLAS STINSON(ph) (US Army): If the powers above decided to take the females out of the roles that they're in, they're not only hurting society as a whole, but they're hurting the females, and they're hurting the Army.

WESTERVELT: First Sergeant Douglas Stinson runs Battalion 164's forward support company. He worries lawmakers might force the military to take a step backwards.

1st Sgt. STINSON: I've worked with females out of 21 years of service pretty much all of my military career, and they do just as good as anybody else. They've fought this long, and they've made great strides. Now why would we push them back to start all over?

WESTERVELT: Another NCO here called the congressional debate a `needless diversion' that could drive some women away from the military, just when the Army faces perhaps its toughest recruiting and retention challenge since the creation of the all-volunteer force. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

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