WASHINGTON -- The first loss of an American servicewoman in the Persian Gulf war -- as a prisoner or as a casualty -- is not an event of "war-stopping" dimensions, a number of observers said yesterday, but it is stirring up a sharp new debate over women's role in the military.
The divided reaction to the official report listing a servicewoman as missing in action ranged from demands for new restrictions on putting women at risk in the war to equally firm calls for fully equal roles in combat for women.
Former President Gerald R. Ford joined the debate, remarking that the report "saddens me" but adding that "this is a voluntary military organization and, when you become a part of it, you assume certain risks. You have to understand that that's part of the probability."
In an interview from his office in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the former commander in chief said that women accepted that risk "under the rules they understood" would apply to them when they joined up.
Wilma Vaught, a retired Air Force general, said she hoped the incident would have the effect of building greater support for "the strong feelings [of servicewomen] to be free to do their jobs."
"That young lady [now missing] was assigned to do a job, and she was doing it when that happened," said Ms. Vaught, now head of a women veteran's memorial group. If the incident causes widespread pleas to "bring the women home," she added, "women [in the service] would be furious, and rightly so."
Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group, said: "I think this could really cause quite an uprising."
Because of the negative reaction she foresaw, Ms. LaHaye said she thought the Pentagon might be led "to take a new look at where they've got women positioned" in the war zone. Iraq has already demonstrated that "they do not know how to treat POWs," she said. "What will they do with a woman?"
Several of those who commented made the point that the nature of modern warfare means that there is no strict separation between those who serve in a combat zone and those who serve in "support" roles -- the only roles that military rules allow for women.
Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., a longtime opponent of those rules, said that the incident regarding the servicewoman "shows how phony the policy [behind those rules] is. The only protection that gives to women is to protect them from promotions."
The congresswoman said she was confident that "most people" expected that women serving in the gulf war would face the risk that has now become a reality for at least one woman.
She and others noted public opinion polls showing a clear majority favoring equality, even in combat, for female soldiers. A Gallup Poll taken early last fall, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, found a majority of 60 percent to 37 percent for such equality.
Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-Md.-6th, however, said conversations she has had with women in the military indicated that they still favored the no-combat rules. Ms. Byron, who heads a House Armed Services subcommittee that studied the rules anew last year, said that the new incident did not change her personal opposition to having women in "front-line combat roles."
Rosemary Dempsey, a vice president of the National Organization for Women, said she thought the incident would have an immediate impact on public attitudes, "raising the consciousness of the people" to the fact that women and minorities together are sharing a heavy part of the responsibility among allied troops in the war zone, and deserve equality as a result.