Women on the front line

Harry G. Summers Jr.

February 04, 1991|By Harry G. Summers Jr.

SCUDS PUT U.S. Women on Front Lines," was the headline. "The Iraqi Scud missile is a unisex weapon that has brought the front line to many of the 28,000 American women serving in Operation Desert Storm," noted the Washington Post story. "The federal laws and military regulations that bar women from serving in combat units do not stop the enemy from shooting at them."

That would come as no news to the female Army nurses under Japanese fire at Bataan and Corregidor 50 years ago, or to the female Army nurses at Anzio beachhead in February 1944, where six of them were killed by German bombing. Four of those women who survived were awarded the Silver Star Medal, the nation's third-highest award for battlefield bravery.

In the Vietnam War, 1st Lt. Sharon A. Lane, an Army nurse, died from shrapnel wounds from a Viet Cong rocket attack on Chu Lai on June 8, 1969. Most recently, Capt. Linda Bray of the Army's 988th Military Police Co. won instant fame when she came under hostile fire while leading an attack on a Panamanian Defense Force position.

Indeed, beginning with the woman known as Molly Pitcher in the Revolutionary War, women have served under fire in most of America's wars. In earlier conflicts they served in unofficial capacities. In fact, Molly Pitcher (her real first name was Mary and her last name is not known) traveled with her husband during the war, a common occurrence among poorer families. Like others in her situation, she received half-rations in the Continental Army for doing a variety of chores. However, Pitcher also joined the soldiers in battle and ultimately was awarded a pension in recognition of her service.

It was not until World War I that women were formally incorporated into the U.S. military. As Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm pointed out in her study of women in the military, by the end of that war, 34,000 women had served in the military, primarily in the Nurse Corps, and 10,000 had served overseas. Some were wounded, and 38 died, most of them casualties of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Some 350,000 women served in the armed services during World War II, most of them, in contrast to World War I, not in the Nurse Corps. By war's end, in addition to 57,000 Army nurses and 11,000 Navy nurses, there were 100,000 women in the Army, 86,000 in the Navy, 18,000 in the Marines and 11,000 in the Coast Guard. At peak strength, some 22,000-plus women in the armed forces were serving overseas.

Eleven Navy and 66 female Army nurses spent 37 months in a Japanese POW camp. "Of all the U.S. women's components," notes Holm, "the Army Nurse Corps took the heaviest casualties, losing over 200, 17 of whom are buried in U.S. cemeteries overseas."

Some 22,000 women were on active duty with the military when the Korean War began in 1950, but by 1952 that number had more than doubled to more than 46,000 women. These included 13,000 Air Force, 10,000 Army, 8,000 Navy, 2,400 Marines and the rest nurses or other health professionals. Some 500 to 600 nurses served in Korea at MASH or evacuation hospitals, on hospital ships and as Air Force aero-evacuation nurses.

It is estimated that 261,000 women served in the military during the Vietnam era, and more than 7,500 served in Vietnam. Five thousand women served with the Army in Vietnam, almost 2,000 the Air Force, 500 in the Navy and 27 with the Marine Corps. Eight military women -- seven Army nurses and one Air Force nurse -- died in Vietnam, including Lane, who was killed during an enemy rocket attack.

However, the female component of the U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf is quite different from its predecessors. In the case of the Army, for example, the Nurse Corps long has been a unisex force, and the segregation of female soldiers into the Women's Army Corps (WAC) came to an end in the late 1970s.

Except for the combat arms -- infantry, armor, cavalry and field artillery -- women are integrated into all the regular branches of the Army. They serve not only in the medical corps and in the adjutant General Corps, as they had in the past, but also in aviation, Air Defense Artillery, the Corps of Engineers, the Signal Corps, the Ordnance Corps, the Quartermaster Corps, the Military Police Corps, Military Intelligence and the like.

And they not only serve in rear-area units, as they had in past wars, but also with the support and combat-support units of the infantry and armored divisions now at the front in Saudi Arabia. My own daughter-in-law, for example, is the electronics maintenance officer with the 3rd Armored Division military intelligence battalion. This is a significant change, one that may render moot the question of women in combat.

During the early days of the Korean War, the U.S. 24th Infantry Division (now deployed in the gulf) lost one of its three infantry regiments in hard fighting as it withdrew into the Naktong Perimeter. All able-bodied personnel in the division trains -- i.e., engineer, ordnance, quartermaster, signal and headquarters personnel -- were thrown together to reconstitute a division reserve, and this makeshift unit was later committed to the defense of the perimeter.

If that same situation should develop today -- a real possibility if an intense ground combat campaign ensues -- more than half of that reconstituted force would be female, for women make up a substantial percentage of the division trains.

U.S. female soldiers are trained, armed and ready to fight if they are required to do so. Whether the American people are prepared to see women on the front line is another question entirely. But it is a question that is now at hand.

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