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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Might be surprising to learn that the United States has debated the role of women in the military almost from the beginning of this country. During the Revolutionary War, Margaret Corbin manned a cannon during the Battle of Fort Washington, in New York. She became the first woman to receive a military pension. It was half of what men got, but she did get the full veterans' rum ration.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today, the debate is about whether women should be allowed to fire a cannon. The military is looking to open up more ground combat jobs, but women are already coming under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan; and they're coming home as combat veterans.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence begins a week of reports about these women with the roles they are playing on the battlefield today.

STAFF SGT. JESSICA KEOWN: Are women in combat? Hell, yes. Flat out...

SGT. ALYSSA CORCORAN: I remember laying in the ground. We didn't exactly know where the gunfire was coming from...

SGT. JACLYN O'SHEA: It got to the point where they start shooting at you and you're just like, aw - you know, like you just get used to it...

CAPT. KATHRYN KATZ: The first mission I was on was the hardest. It was a 72-hour mission over terrain that ranged from flat to hilly to mountainous. But at no point did I ever think once, I can't do this.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Those four women - Army sergeants Jessica Keown, Alyssa Corcoran, Jaclyn O'Shea; and Capt. Kathryn Katz - all accompanied infantry and special forces missions in Afghanistan. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Keown's rank is staff sergeant.] There and in Iraq, the front lines were never defined. So even truck drivers and clerks got rocketed and mortared just like everyone else. But these women were doing combat patrols. There's Sgt. Jaclyn O'Shea. She did two tours in Afghanistan. That meant marching a 70-pound rucksack on missions that could last for days.

O'SHEA: This, including the full basic load and the ruck. Right here, I would have my magazines, smoke grenades or flash bangs.

LAWRENCE: Then there's Alyssa Corcoran. She deployed with O'Shea on a female engagement team based in Logar, Afghanistan, in 2011.

CORCORAN: The very first patrol I remember, we walked about seven miles to a village and started talking to the locals, to find out if there was any known Taliban in the area. And on our way out, we were walking through one of their fields; and we got into a tick.

LAWRENCE: Tick is military slang for getting shot at.

CORCORAN: We were pinned down for about 20 minutes. We didn't exactly know where the gunfire was coming from. It actually sounded like firecrackers right above your head.

LAWRENCE: Sgt. Corcoran says on the 50 or 75 missions she did, firefights were routine. This isn't the infantry. In fact, these female engagement teams were invented to do hearts and minds - outreach - especially among Afghan women, who male soldiers can't talk to. That also meant they started picking up lots of information - so much that special forces teams started requesting that female soldiers join their night raids on Taliban targets.

COMMAND SGT. MAJ. MIKE HALL: We quickly realized how effective these women were.

LAWRENCE: Mike Hall was the command sergeant major of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, from 2009 to 2010. Hall and the commanding general at the time, Stanley McChrystal, decided to stretch the no-women-in-combat rule so they could get at the intel they'd been missing.

HALL: So Gen. McChrystal and I started pushing that back to U.S. forces - say listen, you need to find women willing to do this. Get them out there, and get them with the units; the infantry, the armor, the folks who are actually on the ground.

LAWRENCE: U.S. Army special operations command has created a core of female soldiers to go out on its missions. Hall says they don't disrupt cohesion in male units. They have the physical stamina, and they're mentally tough and don't break under fire.

CORCORAN: It was pretty much my life or one of my friend's lives, or them. It was either me come home to my family, or die.

LAWRENCE: Alyssa Corcoran did come home, but she came home angry. She would blow up at her friends and family over nothing. And she couldn't really get her head out of combat mode.

CORCORAN: I had nightmares. I couldn't sleep. I would be like, on high alert. I would be ready to go. I would wake up in the middle of the night and actually think that I was getting ready for a mission.

LAWRENCE: Post-traumatic stress disorder hits 20, maybe 30 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Corcoran says she's doing better; her family pushed her to get professional help. But this is a new thing - the idea that women soldiers can be traumatized or gravely wounded, or lost.

CEDRIC GORDON: This is Brittany one Christmas, standing by the Christmas tree. That's Brittany when she was a little girl.

LAWRENCE: Cedric Gordon, a deputy police chief in St. Petersburg, Florida, has pictures of his daughter Brittany on every wall and table, from the time she was a kid to when she joined the Army.

GORDON: That's us at her graduation, at basic training. She had bought this shirt for me, and it says "My Daughter Wears Combat Boots."

LAWRENCE: Last year, Brittany deployed to Afghanistan with an Army intelligence unit. She phoned home as often as she could.

GORDON: She would always call and ask me my opinion. And I could always tell when she was serious. She'd say, Dad, do you have a minute?

LAWRENCE: Last October, Brittany missed her regular Saturday call, but Gordon didn't think much of it. But she had told him that she was going on missions outside the base. Chief Warrant Officer Gary McCabe served in Kandahar with Brittany Gordon. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: McCabe's rank is chief warrant officer 2.]

CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 GARY MCCABE: Funny story is, she wasn't even supposed to go out on the mission. She had been out a lot, and we wanted to send somebody else. He had never been out before, and we wanted somebody to actually teach him how to interact with Afghans, and mentor him.

LAWRENCE: Gordon had flourished on deployment. McCabe says she was doing the work of a soldier several grades above her rank. And she loved getting outside the wire, to see Afghanistan. On Oct. 13, she choppered north of Kandahar to meet with Afghan intelligence officers, but one of them was wearing a suicide vest. He was apparently targeting a senior Afghan official. A small piece of shrapnel hit Spc. Gordon just below the edge of her Kevlar helmet.

GORDON: I try to tell myself often that Brittany is in heaven, and heaven is such a nice place as - even if she could come back down here on Earth and be with her dad, she wouldn't. That's how I give myself comfort.

LAWRENCE: Gordon has another daughter, in the Air Force, and a son in the Army. It's different with daughters, he says.

GORDON: I wonder sometimes if that's the depth of my grief because I always felt like I should be there to protect her, you know, as a father. I know this might sound weird, but I just felt like I couldn't do nothing. So (pauses) I think that's the way you feel about your daughters, whether they're in the military or not, you know. (Starts to cry.)

LAWRENCE: Now, Cedric Gordon is going through Brittany's personal effects, including all the flags and plaques and framed photos that came after.

GORDON: These are coins, and her dog tags and...

LAWRENCE: He's had her things on display all over the house, but his family is nudging him to pack most of it up. He'll keep the messages she left on his phone, though. He says sometimes, he still needs to hear her voice.

GORDON: Let's try this. This is Brittany.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDED PHONE MESSAGE)

SPC. BRITTANY GORDON: Hey, Daddy. It's me. I'll try to call you back in a couple minutes. Bye.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: To erase this message...

LAWRENCE: Gordon says he doesn't feel angry at anyone. He just misses his daughter. At the same time, he's proud that she was pushing the limits for women in the Army. He says his daughter - Spc. Brittany Gordon - wouldn't have had it any other way. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, what it's like for families when a wife or a mother goes to war.

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