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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Sixty-one women in the U.S. military have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq. That's twice the number of American military women who have died in hostile fire in all previous conflicts since World War II. And the number indicates that women are playing new roles in combat zones.

As NPR's Jack Zahora reports, the U.S. Army itself is acknowledging that its policy governing female soldiers in combat is unclear and outdated.

JACK ZAHORA: This month, the Pentagon released a report by the RAND Corporation, examining how the Army assigns women to units in Iraq. The Pentagon doesn't allow women in ground units, whose mission is to engage in direct combat.

But tell that to Army Captain Andrea So. 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.

Captain ANDREA SO (U.S. Army): We drove in the gate. Spent about an hour and a half unloading our supplies on base. And then, as we were leaving to return, just as we're going out of the gate, an incoming convoy hit an anti-tank mine. So that was pretty frightening because it was definitely not there when we drove in an hour before.

ZAHORA: The RAND report says the Army is following the Defense Department's policy. It is not assigning women to combat units. However, the report 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 where will always pop up.

The study also found instances where women did serve in combat units. RAND Corporation's Margaret Harrell is the study's lead author. She says RAND's researchers found that while women are not being assigned to combat units, some do end up in these units after they get to Iraq.

Ms. MARGARET HARRELL (Lead Author, RAND Corporation's Army Report): Women can't be assigned to combat medic units. But in Iraq, what commanders were doing is to the extent that they had female medics, they could task the men to replace a combat medic for a day or two.

ZAHORA: The Army has acknowledged to NPR that there are problems with its policy.

Lieutenant Colonel CATHERINE AINSWORTH(ph) (U.S. Army): It is confusing and it isn't as clear and concise as it should be.

ZAHORA: Lieutenant Colonel Catherine Ainsworth has the unwieldy title of chief of women in the Army assignment policy. She says the Army's policy was written in 1992. And compared to the Pentagon's, it should be updated.

Lt. Col. AINSWORTH: The DOD policy was developed in 1994 and it's accurate. The DOD policy is not as restrictive.

ZAHORA: Ainsworth points to the needs to clarify the language governing women's so-called collocation with combat units.

Lt. Col. AINSWORTH: That's one of those terms that we need to clarify basically and align our policy with the DOD policy, which is, obviously, more recent. And that's our intent.

ZAHORA: But in the meantime, women are finding themselves with the responsibilities that they didn't have in previous complex like Vietnam.

Captain LORY MANNING (Retired, U.S. Navy): They were not armed. They didn't even carry weapons in Vietnam.

ZAHORA: Retired Navy Captain Lory Manning is with the D.C.-based Women's Research and Education Institute. The organization tracks how women are serving in the military.

Capt. MANNING: There was an instance in an attack in Panama, where a woman MP was involved in a little police action that lasted about 10 minutes and where she fired off her weapon. But beyond that, the main thing that's different here is that women are defending themselves. They're armed. They're trained to shoot and they're shooting.

ZAHORA: And there are more women. 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. Captain Andrea So explains what happened when she first joined her platoon in 2003.

Capt. SO: You had some guys that thought, oh well, I'm going to have to bail out the women in certain occasions, you know, if we're on a convoy, I don't know how comfortable I feel if I have a female driver or a female gunner. Maybe I'd prefer to have, you know, a big strong man up on a 50-caliber machine gun.

ZAHORA: But she says that didn't last very long.

Capt. SO: Guys saw that, you know, their female counterparts could really handle themselves, both driving huge semi-trucks or handling the crew-served weapons, that we're keeping our convoys secure.

ZAHORA: 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 policy, one responded: If the intent is to prevent women from experiencing combat, we're past that.

Jack Zahora, NPR News, Washington.

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