WASHINGTON — Within the first 24 hours of the Persian Gulf ground war, American women had already scored a first.
Yesterday, female pilots from the 101st Airborne Division became the first U.S. servicewomen to fly helicopters during an air assault into enemy territory. The Chinook helicopters were carrying supplies into Iraq.
"It was only inevitable," says military policy consultant Carolyn Becraft. "Women are all over enemy territory right now. Women have gone in, they're part of an invasion.
"There are going to be a million firsts -- this is just one of them."
Although women in the U.S. military are barred by law and policy from "direct combat" assignments, the lines between combat and non-combat roles have become increasingly blurred as women have become more and more integrated into the services.
Today, nearly 30,000 military women -- making up about 6 percent of the U.S. troops in the gulf -- are involved in Operation Desert Storm in capacities more wide-ranging than ever before, and in positions closer to harm's way than ever before.
Women lead chemical decontamination squads, serving along-side combat soldiers at the front lines. They fly refueling tankers and supply helicopters. They're even at risk of becoming prisoners of war -- a specter raised several weeks ago with the disappearance of the first female U.S. soldier in this conflict.
"We find, this time, many more women closer to combat areas than we've ever had before," says Navy Rear Adm. Fran McKee.
"Women are spread throughout the structure from support echelons up to the front, where they're providing communications and supplies," says Navy Cmdr. Annette Wiechert. "They're as much in the fight as anybody."
"They're doing damn near every job conceivable, except combat missions," says Air Force Capt. Sam Grizzle.
While no law prevents women from serving "in combat," laws do prohibit the permanent assignment of Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force women to ships and aircraft engaged in a combat mission. And Army poli
cy excludes women from positions that would have routine engagement in direct combat and a high risk of capture.
"That doesn't prevent exposure to combat," says Army Capt. Barbara Goodno. "And it doesn't prevent women from becoming casualties."
The distinction the military makes between male and female troops goes like this, says Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught: "It's all right for women to shoot back defensively, but they're not supposed to shoot offensively."
But Ms. Becraft, a former Army officer, believes that in a "round the clock" crisis such as this, even offensive missions may involve women. "They'll use whoever is up and ready. The people in the unit wouldn't have it any other way."
In the gulf war, Army women are traveling all around the battlefield, bringing supplies, ammunition and intelligence to combatants by helicopter and truck, as well as serving in air defense artillery units, such as Patriot anti-missile battalions.
The women closest to the battlefield, and the most integrated in the theater of conflict, are women in the Army, says Ms. Becraft.
Army soldier Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, missing since last month and suspected of having been captured by Iraqi soldiers, was on a supply mission with a male colleague when both disappeared near the Saudi Arabian-Kuwaiti border.
Some Navy women are serving in construction battalions and at land-based hospitals in Saudi Arabia. But most are aboard supply, hospital and repair ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, serving on all ships except combat vessels, but coming within close proximity of battle fleets. "They're as much in the thick of it as anyone," says Navy Lt. Greg Smith.
And in the Air Force, where 97 percent of the positions are open to both sexes, women are flying refueling and supply aircraft, and serving on airfields throughout the Saudi desert as munitions handlers and maintenance specialists.
Although some "combat support" positions, particularly in the Army, have only been open to women in the last three years, many have been available to women for at least the last 10 years, others since the start of the all-volunteer force in 1973.
"What's different now is that you have the actuality of women in these positions," says Ms. Becraft. This is the first "extended conflict" in which women have served in such a wide variety of roles, she says. Only about 8,000 women, most of them nurses, participated in Vietnam.
Also bringing women closer to combat, say military experts, is the blurring of traditional front lines. "In today's modern combat environment, with the weapons we have and the weapons the enemy has, I'm not sure you can define the front line anymore," says Captain Grizzle.
The front line may be in the sea, the air or wherever a Scud missile hits, experts say. "With the accuracy of weapons, no place is safe," says Ms. Becraft. "And bullets and missiles don't discriminate by gender."