Women in Gulf Served in Wide Array of Jobs WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Women flew cargo-carrying helicopters into Iraq. They serviced tanks and trucks, operated Patriot anti-missile systems, policed military installations, guarded prisoners of war and resupplied troops at the front lines.

They served in the air, on the water, on the ground.

And they suffered the ultimate consequences of war: At least seven died -- two in Operation Desert Shield and five in Desert Storm, according to the Pentagon, which continues to update its list of casualties -- and two were taken prisoner.

Military women deployed to the Persian Gulf performed a greater array of jobs than in any previous conflict, said Pentagon officials.

In Vietnam, and up until the start of the all-volunteer force in 1973, women served in administrative and nursing roles. Today, they constitute about 11 percent of the armed forces and serve in all but direct combat positions.

More than 30,000 women -- making up about 6 percent of the U.S. troops in the gulf -- were involved in Operation Desert Storm, where the lines became blurred between "combat" and "non-combat" jobs.

Laws prohibit the permanent assignment of U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force women to ships and aircraft engaged in combat missions, and Army policy excludes women from positions that would have routine engagement in combat and a high risk of capture.

Such laws and policies don't prevent women from coming within harm's way.

Army reservists Christine Mayes, 22, Beverly Clark, 23, and Pvt. Adrienne L. Mitchell, 20, were killed when an Iraqi missile hit their barracks near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Army Spc. Cindy M. Beaudoin, 19, was killed in action and Maj. Marie Rossi, 33, died in a helicopter crash, both on the day after the cease-fire.

Spc. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, 20, and Maj. Rhonda Leah Scott Cornum, 36, who were released last week, are believed to be the first American female POWs since World War II.

The large deployment of women to the gulf -- by comparison, only about 8,000 women participated in Vietnam -- sparked much debate about the role of women in the military.

Many believe women have proven themselves worthy fighters -- in the gulf, in Grenada and in Panama. In a national poll in January, 72 percent of Americans said women should be allowed to serve in combat units. In a February poll, 56 percent supported women's participation in fighting.

But others believe women don't possess the strength required for combat or think the public is not ready to see women coming home in body bags.

As numerous mothers went to war this winter, several members of Congress asked the Pentagon to adopt a proposal preventing single parents, or both parents in a family, from being deployed to the gulf. But Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney rejected the proposal, saying it would undermine "unit cohesion and esprit de corps."

Military analysts predict the performance of women in Desert Storm will be examined to determine future Pentagon policy. Noted Mr. Cheney, "Women have made a major contribution to this effort. We could not have won without them."

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