Military still struggles to find right role for women

April 01, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

THE NEWS LAST week included video of a young American mother held as a prisoner of war, pictures of a woman soldier, barely more than a girl, missing in action, and word that the Air Force Academy, guilty of ignoring the rape of dozens of female cadets, had been forced to clean house.

Women may have come a long way in the military - they have been permitted on combat aircraft and combat vessels since 1994 - but these headlines make it clear that women have not yet arrived.

Our country, and its military, still doesn't know what to make of women soldiers.

On one hand, we argue that women soldiers should be kept out of harm's way because, if captured, they can be raped. Yet we ignore the cries of young women who have been raped - and by their fellow cadets.

We fret about the sexual violation of women POWs - although Desert Storm veteran Rhonda Cornum said that was just one of the ways her captors tormented her - but we feel no need to name the terror we see in the faces of the American boys, and they are only boys, who were captured. Is any reporter going to ask them if they were raped?

If I were a young woman today, I might cross military service off my list of opportunities for the simple reason that everybody seems to be helpless to see women as anything but the object of sexual assault.

Women constitute 16 percent of the military force and many of them hold front-line jobs in Iraq right now.

The reason is that during Desert Storm, where two women were taken prisoner and 15 were killed, women performed with such distinction that the military ignored the recommendations of its own advisory commission and overturned the ban on women in combat roles. Women are now trained for everything but infantry fire fights.

(In fact, women have been taken prisoner and been killed in war zones since World War II, although most were nurses.)

It had long been argued that Americans could not cope with the sight of women in body bags, but I did not know, until researching this column, that two of the bodies carried out of the damaged hull of the USS Cole, after the terrorist attack in Yemen in 2000, were those of women. I don't remember a special outcry.

It has also been argued that women don't have the physical stuff necessary to survive capture or to help their fellow soldiers survive. But a Canadian study found that women POWs held up OK, but men POWs could not cope with hearing them mistreated.

Whose weakness is that?

The argument about women in combat is supposed to be moot, and the military is being urged to move on to the next topic: flexibility in the deployment of mothers of young children.

But the argument is not over. Not as long as our military academies - where future leaders are trained - are permeated by a culture of male sexual entitlement.

The rapes at the Air Force Academy are just the tip of the iceberg. Every year, anonymous surveys at the service academies reveal that women students are sexually assaulted, sexually harassed or discriminated against because they are women.

Why this is the case is a mystery to me. I wager that the boys responsible are the children of women who not only worked for a living, but who executed with competence jobs of responsibility and authority.

Didn't these kids learn anything at home? Or are they permitted to believe something else at the service academies?

But I am only a civilian, and perhaps I misunderstand.

Perhaps the leadership at this country's military academies has decided that the sexual abuse of their women students should be considered part of POW training.

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