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Women in Combat- Parts 1-5

Women in Combat
 Since 2002, women have served nearly 170,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and make up about 10 percent of U.S. forces in those two conflicts. All Things Considered is examines the expanding role of women in the military.

In the Series
Part 1: Women's Roles in U.S. Military Expands

Part 2: Three Female Soldiers on Their Experiences in Iraq

Part 3: Two Opposing Views on Women in Combat

Part 4: Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Sexual Harassment in the Military

Part 5: A Female Soldier on Life After Amputation

All Things Considered, October 1, 2007
Women in Combat: Roles in U.S. Army Expand
 by Michele Norris
First in a five-part series.

Since 2002, women have served nearly 170,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pentagon rules dictate that women may not be assigned to ground combat units. That means they are not allowed to serve in the infantry or as special operations commandos.

But women are serving in support units as truck drivers, gunners, medics, military police, helicopter pilots and more.

This week, All Things Considered examines the expanding role of women in the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military sociologist Brenda Moore, of the University at Buffalo-The State University of New York, has been talking to women recently returned from Iraq, and says that "history is happening as we speak."

The current conflict in Iraq is a war against guerrilla insurgency -fought with the use of improvised explosive devices, mortar attacks, suicide bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, Moore says.

So even though women are prohibited from serving in direct combat, "the unpredictable nature of the attacks in this war blurs the distinction between front-line and rear areas," Moore says.

"Women who are assigned to support units are finding themselves in the thick of the battle."

Moore notes that a number of legislative changes led to the expanded role for women in today's military.

The first major factor was a shift in the mid-1970s from the military draft to an all-volunteer force. This change created opportunities for women to serve in greater numbers as the services sought to meet personnel goals.

"There simply were not enough men volunteering to serve, making the service of women a necessity," Moore says.

In the early 1990s, Congress lifted the ban on women flying combat aircraft and serving on combat ships, and during the first Clinton administration, then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced new rules and policies that opened more military jobs to women.

And compared with other countries, women in the U.S. military are playing a more active role in direct combat activities as a result of the Iraq war.

In the Netherlands, for instance, a 1979 law led to the integration of the Dutch military, with no formal restrictions on women serving combat duty. In practice, however, Dutch women are assigned to traditional roles, such as clerical, communication and nursing work.

"While legislatively, these roles are open, in actuality, women have not been serving in direct combat," Moore says.

In Israel, too, although the law states that all 18-year-old Jewish women must serve for two years and may volunteer for combat assignments, the reality is quite different. The Israel military doesn't take all eligible women, but rather selects the number it needs to meet personnel quotas each year, and once a combat unit deploys, women soldiers are generally evacuated.

As a result, the U.S. military is in the vanguard of women serving in the military.

"This is a time in world history that women are actually serving in unprecedented roles - not because they have the military occupational specialty, but because they're there," Moore says.

Related NPR Stories
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May 26, 2005
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May 19, 2005
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May 19, 2005
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All Things Considered, October 2, 2007
Women in Combat: On the Ground in Iraq
 by Michele Norris
Second in a five-part series.

Women serving in the U.S. military make up about 10 percent of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although they aren't assigned to ground combat units, they are experiencing combat nonetheless.

This week, All Things Considered is reporting on women and war. Three women who have served in Iraq share their experiences in a war zone and their thoughts on the service of women in the military.

Three Women Warriors

Sgt. Griselda Benavides and Lance Cpl. Mary Carnes are Marines based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. They were deployed to Anbar province from February 2006 to February 2007.

Army Staff Sgt. Laurie Hawkins from Fort Bragg, N.C., served in Anbar and Baghdad from August 2004 to June 2005.

Unique Roles for Women

Even though the women were not assigned to ground combat units, they all experienced mortar fire, improvised explosive devices and other attacks.

"In Iraq, the way that the war is, anywhere you are is the front lines," says Carnes.

Despite the danger, the women say they have been able to play unique roles in Iraq, both in and out of the military.

Benavides says there was a need for women search teams.

"Males [were] disguising themselves as females because they knew that they weren't going to get searched," she says. "So they were crossing the checkpoints, hiding stuff on themselves. That has gone down a lot, because they know that we're searching the women."

Reaching Out to Iraqi Women

Carnes says she feels that female troops have done a lot of good in Iraq by reaching out to Iraqi women.

"We help the Iraqi women understand what we as American women have. For me that was an eye-opener," Carnes says.

"I had heard that Iraqi women didn't really have all the privileges or all of the freedoms that we have, but it's not something that really clicked with me until I actually saw it, and I saw the way they were treated by their husbands and the way that they didn't really have any freedoms," she says.

Combating Prejudice

Still, being a woman in the military brings extra challenges,
particularly when it comes to the curiosity and, sometimes, derision of Iraqis who don't understand or approve of women in uniform.

Hawkins says she heard Iraqis talking about her, asking why she was in the country and not at home with her husband and children.

"I tell them that I'm a soldier, and I'm here to fight with my fellow soldiers, and it took them a long time to grasp that concept," she says.

The women stress that they receive the same training, and have the same experiences and worries as their male counterparts, and only want to be treated equally.

"Enlisting into the Army, being a female, you really have to know that that's what you want to do," Hawkins says. "If you're going to sign up, you've got to know that, you've got to be thick-skinned ... You've got to suck it up and be like a man."

Related NPR Stories
May 28, 2007
Shoshana Johnson on Life After Iraq
April 6, 2007
A Look at Servicewomen in Harm's Way in Iraq
Feb. 14, 2007
A Woman Who Dreamed of Flying with the Marines

All Things Considered, October 3, 2007
Women in Combat: Two Opposing Views
 by Michele Norris
Third in a five-part series.
Women are playing an increasing role in U.S. military operations in Iraq
and Afghanistan.

The current Pentagon policy governing women in combat dates back to 1994. Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin wrote that "women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground."

Over the summer, current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reported to Congress that the armed forces are in compliance with the policy.

In a weeklong series on the role women are playing in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we hear two opposing views about that policy.

Opponent: 'We're Talking About Life and Death'

Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative think tank Center for Military Readiness, is a staunch opponent of women in combat. In the 1990s, as a member of a commission on women in the military under President George H.W. Bush, she fought against allowing women to fly combat aircraft. And now, she believes the rules pertaining to ground combat are not being followed.

"[The rules] are being circumvented; they're being deliberately broken; they're being redefined, without authorization by the secretary of defense and without the required notice to Congress," she says.

Donnelly says the Army is ordering women to serve in support units that co-locate - or embed - with all-male infantry units. As a result, she says, everyone on the battlefield is exposed to greater risk.

As an example, she describes a scenario in which an infantry soldier is wounded on the battlefield and needs to be carried to safety. She says that if the closest soldier is a female support soldier, "no matter how brave or courageous she is, no matter how hard she tries, she would not be able to evacuate that soldier on her back," Donnelly says.

"There is no excuse for anybody's son, an infantryman, to lose his life because the co-located soldier nearby was a female soldier, rather than a male soldier, as required by regulation. This is not a matter that can be taken lightly. We're talking about life and death here," she says.

Report: Unclear Whether Rules Being Broken

Co-locating women soldiers with all-male combat units was one of the topics addressed by the Rand Corporation this year in a lengthy report examining women in the Army.

Researchers found that the rules governing co-location - or embedding - of servicewomen are ambiguous. As a result, Rand said it could not determine whether the policy is actually being violated.

Rand found other aspects of the policy to be confusing, as well.

Pentagon Official: Policy Remains Relevant, Reasonable

Still, the Pentagon is standing by its rules. Bill Carr, deputy
undersecretary for military personnel policy, says he believes the policy remains relevant - despite the fact that women are finding themselves in combat situations every day.

Carr says he believes the current policy of not assigning women to units that have a mission of direct combat is "reasonable" and "consistent with the expectations and the wishes of the nation."

"While women have extraordinary capabilities - and they certainly spend an extraordinary amount of their time in difficult situations and often in harm's way - they are not deliberately and systematically assigned to units that would be involved in an attack," Carr says.

He says that women are playing important roles, such as participating on patrols where, due to custom, it is necessary for women soldiers to search other women.

But in determining who is "first in" to an attack situation, Carr says women would not be part of the equation.

"The policy is clear enough about what we intend, so that those who are operating understand, even in ambiguous situations, that they would not place the woman first through the door," he says.

He acknowledges that the situation in Iraq is very different from the concept of conventional war in place in 1994 when Aspin wrote the current combat rules.

"The Aspin memo talked about direct ground combat that takes place well forward on the battlefield. At the time that memorandum was issued, that was a view of conventional war: It had a front, it had a rear," Carr says. "But if you're operating in an unconventional war, then you rely on people to interpret the intent, and that is being done very well."

Related NPR Stories
Aug. 26, 2007
Army Policies Don't Keep Women Off Front Lines
Aug. 26, 2007
After Tour, Female Vets Face Unique Challenges
May 13, 2007
U.S. Troops in Iraq Include 10,000 Mothers
May 26, 2005
Iraq War Has Claimed Lives of 25 Female Soldiers
Sep. 12, 2005
'Love My Rifle': A Woman Soldier's Guide to Iraq
May 19, 2005
A Woman Soldier's Battles on the Front Lines

All Things Considered, October 4, 2007
Reported Cases of Sexual Assault in Military Rise
 by Michele Norris

Fourth in a five-part series.

Since 2002, the Miles Foundation - a private, nonprofit organization that tracks sexual assault within the armed forces - has received 976 reports of sexual assault in the Central Command Area of Responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

Christine Hansen, executive director of the foundation, says the group is seeing a steady upward trend in the number of reported cases of sexual assault - increases of 10 to 15% each quarter. The figures are higher than those reported by the Department of Defense, she says, because the Miles Foundation provides private and confidential services
to women, making it more likely for them to report incidents of sexual assault.

Among the organization's findings, Hansen says, are reports from female service members of cases of gang rape and rape involving serial offenders. She says that the most predominant type of assault is acquaintance or date rape, which in the military is termed "offender-known rape."

The commanders of alleged assailants have a spectrum of disciplinary responses: from zero response to a criminal-justice proceeding within the military, or court martial. But Hansen says her group has found that the predominant response is that of administrative action, such as a
letter of reprimand in a personnel file or forfeiture of pay and

"We do not see that the predominant response is that of a
criminal-justice response leading to court-martial proceedings," Hansen says.

Many of the women who have been assaulted "desperately try to maintain their career in the military," Hansen says. She estimates that less than one-third of the women tracked by the Miles Foundation have been able to do so.

Scars of War Run Deep for Many Female Vets
 by Gloria Hillard

Behind the Numbers
It's hard to get a grasp on the prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. military. The Veterans Administration consistently cites a 2000 study that found 23% of women reported sexual assault while in the military.
But a less-publicized VA study from 2003 updated that figure to 28%.

Experts think the figure could be higher, especially given that the VA's numbers were gathered before women began playing a heightened role in U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 2000 VA study also reports that 55% of women experienced sexual harassment in the military. And a 2005 study estimates that more than half of women in the reserves and National Guard suffered sexual assault
or harassment during their service, according to news reports.

The military says it has taken steps to address the issue.

Two years ago, the Department of Defense introduced "restricted reporting," which allows the victim of a sexual assault to bypass chain of command and make a confidential report.

At West Point, which is attracting more women than ever, new cadets are made to memorize restricted reporting procedures, and each year, women who were raped speak to cadets about their experiences. The changes came in the wake of a 2005 Pentagon report that found that hostile attitudes toward women in uniform persisted at the Army and Navy academies.

West Point's class of 2011 includes 225 young women, the highest number of female cadets in a single class since women first came to the U.S. Military Academy in 1976.

Sources: NPR staff and Associated Press reports.

 Female soldiers have been returning from Iraq with not only
combat-related trauma, but also with deep emotional wounds known as military sexual trauma. A 2003 survey of women using the Veterans Administration health care system reports that 28% experienced at least one sexual assault during military service. And that sexual trauma, combined with combat trauma, makes women far more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

At a VA residential program in Menlo Park, Calif., many women have experienced what psychologists call the "double whammy" of combat trauma and sexual assault.

For some women, the 2 to 3 month program is the last stop in what has been a decades-long and difficult journey. For the younger women the sound of roadside bombs is still fresh in their memories.

'Rape by Rank'

Just 3 years ago, veteran Sandra wore a helmet and body armor on the streets of Baghdad. Her primary job was rebuilding schools. One day the truck she was driving was hit by a roadside bomb.

The violence she witnessed is the source of nightmares and flashbacks.  But when Sandra, a resident at the women's trauma recovery program in Menlo Park, speaks of the trauma, it is a singular event she recalls - a very personal one. Sandra is among a growing number of young women who
have returned from Iraq with both combat trauma and sexual assault.

"Prior to me coming here, I just didn't know if I was going to live another day sometimes," Sandra said. "I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up."

Dr. Darrah Westrup, director of the Menlo Park program, said that military sexual trauma contributes to the severity of PTSD symptoms, which range from feelings of extreme isolation and self-blame to thoughts of suicide.

Ketora, a shy young woman, looks more like the college student she was prior to joining the Marines after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After she returned from Iraq, she suffered from severe depression and couldn't leave her house.

Her eyes begin to tear, and she takes off her glasses as she talks about her experiences in Iraq.

"Everywhere we went, we were always being attacked. And after a while I just became numb," Ketora said. "I wasn't myself, and I realized that.  But I had to be whatever it is I was to survive from the enemy and my own platoon members."

Ketora said that sexual harassment from her platoon members turned more violent over time. Ketora said she was raped, and she didn't think anyone would believe her.

"It's humiliating. It's degrading. Who's going to believe you?
Especially in the military, when you never know who knows who," Ketora said. "In my rank I was only a lance corporal."

Of her attacker, she says, "He's the guy everybody hoorahs and gives a pat on the back. Everybody loves him. He could never do anything wrong."

It was a story echoed by women nearly twice her age: Their attacker's behavior was acknowledged by others with a nod of the head. In the military it's known as "rape by rank."

Restricted Reporting

Two years ago, the Department of Defense introduced "restricted reporting," which allows the victim of a sexual assault to bypass chain of command and make a confidential report.

Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, said restricted reporting allows victims to get medical help without triggering an investigation.

Within a year of instituting the program, the reports of alleged sexual assault rose close to 30%. But does restricted reporting impede the investigation into and the prosecution of sexual crimes?

"Well, certainly we, as much as everybody else, want to get the
offender. But I think we have to look at the balance, where we have to balance victim care with offender accountability," Whitley said.

Whitley said that after receiving medical help and counseling, victims have the option to change their reporting status and pursue an investigation.

Facing the Nightmares

For the women at the Menlo Park recovery program, it may be too early to talk about their lives after they leave and whether they'll ever fully recover. Recent government reports have criticized the VA for not conducting enough studies to make sure that its treatment programs are really helping vets with PTSD and other mental health disorders.

Westrup counters that in the absence of numerous studies and statistics, there are the women themselves.

The Menlo Park recovery program asks residents to face the nightmares they've been fleeing, which can have a powerful effect, Westrup said.

"You can just see it in how they carry themselves and how they speak, the way they look," Westrup said.

Related NPR Stories
Oct. 1, 2007
Women in Combat: Roles in U.S. Army Expand
May 29, 2005
A Visit to the Women's War Memorial
May 26, 2005
Bid to Limit Women's Combat Role Dropped
Related NPR Story
Scars of War Run Deep for Many Female Vets

All Things Considered, October 5, 2007
Female Soldier Reflects on Injuries, Military Service
 by Michele Norris

The final report in a five-part series.
To date, more than 80 women have lost their lives in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and hundreds have come home with combat injuries.

Among them is Army Spc. Sue Downes from Tazewell, Tenn., who sustained serious injuries - including the loss of both of her legs - in Afghanistan. She is currently being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

In the last of a series of conversations, Downes shares her thoughts on her injury, her service in the military and her recovery.

'They Said They Didn't Know How I Made It'

Last year, the 27-year-old mother of two was serving with a military police unit in Logar province, Afghanistan. On Nov. 28, she volunteered to be gunner on a humanitarian mission, delivering rice and beans to a remote village. Downes normally served as a driver.

"It was a peaceful, nice day," Downes recalls. "I was just looking at the mountains, because Afghanistan has really pretty scenery in some places. ... I remember seeing the snowflakes falling down, because it started snowing."

Her last memory of that day is of the driver of her truck shifting into gear to go up a steep mountain. When she woke up, she was in Landstuhl Hospital in Germany.

"They said they don't know how I made it. They said I was the sickest patient that had ever [come] through Afghanistan," she says.

Downes' truck had hit two anti-tank mines, killing two people. The impact twisted the truck like a washcloth, Downes was later told. She ended up under the turret shield.

Because it was snowing heavily, she couldn't be flown out of the region.  Instead, she was taken by truck to a nearby Greek-run NATO hospital.  There, doctors performed surgery on her lacerated liver and intestines.  They also amputated both of her legs.

Five days later - after traveling from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to Germany - she was sent back to the United States, where she faced multiple surgeries and treatment at Walter Reed.

Recovery Helps Others

Downes got her current prosthetic legs in March and undergoes daily physical therapy. She walks slowly, with a bit of a wobble. But her gait also reveals confidence - and pride.

Tall and striking, with long, blonde hair and large, blue eyes, Downes is easy to spot at Walter Reed - where most of the patients are men.

Her presence there, no matter how painful, ultimately will serve a greater good: Women's bodies are built differently than men's, and what doctors are learning through Downes' treatment will help other women down the road.

Injuries Take Toll on Family

In the meantime, Downes faces many challenges.

Take her appearance, for instance. At first, she says, she swore she'd never wear shorts again. It was hard at first, but she eventually changed her mind.

"I'll show my legs off. I don't care anymore," Downes says.

Life is hard for her family, too. Downes says that sometimes she feels as if she's not a good parent because she can't be with her children as much as she would like.

But she will spend Halloween with them this year, the first time in two years.

'You Have to Step It Up Over There'

Downes thinks most Americans don't fully understand the roles that female troops are playing in deployments to such places as Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We were out there every day, patrolling, doing checkpoints, raiding villages, searching villages, searching females. That's what I was used for primarily," she says with a laugh. "We were out there doing everything."

Her unit helped open the first girls' school in the area, and Downes recalls meeting the students.

"They asked us ... 'How's it feel to be in the military?' and 'How's it feel to be a woman in America?' They were just so curious about little bitty things that they didn't know, and that they couldn't do," Downes says.

And because of the attitudes of many men in Afghanistan, Downes says, "You have to step it up over there and show the men that you mean business."

"I had no problem at all showing any kind of authority," Downes says.  "My whole heart was into what I was doing. I love my people. I love my unit. I just love my job, and I'd go back and do it in a heartbeat."

Downes was awarded a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Army Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Badge for her service. She hopes to move home to Tennessee by spring.

Noonie Fortin
1SG, USAR (Ret)
Author and Speaker
Researcher and Consultant
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