Added combat issue: pregnancy

SUN JOURNAL

Relations: When Pfc. Lynndie R. England - implicated in the prison abuses - returned to the U.S. pregnant, it fueled opposition to women in the military.

May 16, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Pfc. Lynndie R. England returned from Iraq in trouble. The young Army reservist was implicated in the humiliating abuses of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. She was also pregnant by a fellow soldier from her unit.

Within weeks of her reassignment from Iraq to Fort Bragg, N.C., the prisoner abuse scandal mushroomed into an international crisis with England, 21, as one of the most visible actors - she is shown in one photo holding a leash tied to the neck of a naked Iraqi prisoner and, in another, grinning as she points at a detainee's genitals.

More quietly, England has emerged as Exhibit A for conservatives who have long opposed women serving in combat roles, partly on the grounds that pregnancies could hurt military readiness and that sexual relationships among the troops could harm discipline.

"I keep hearing from the field that there's a lot of, shall we say, cohesion going on," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative advocacy group. "How do you plan for deployment without knowing whether you will have all of your troops available or if some will become pregnant and be evacuated?"

England's pregnancy is, for now, an aside in the far broader story of how U.S. soldiers ended up accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners in their care. Family members and England's attorneys have said that she is five months pregnant and that the pregnancy prompted England's reassignment to a military police unit at Fort Bragg.

The father of the baby is Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., 35, who served with England in the Army Reserve's 372nd military police unit based near Cumberland, Md. Both divorced - Graner after a 10-year marriage and two children; England after a year-long marriage that ended before she was 20 - the two began a romantic relationship while stationed in Iraq. One of the charges brought against Graner by military authorities was adultery, for allegedly having sex Oct. 25, 2003, with England.

The couple appears together in some photos that show Iraqi prisoners forced into sexually humiliating poses. Videotapes from Abu Ghraib now in the possession of Pentagon officials reportedly show England and Graner having consensual sex, one senior Army officer told The Sun.

Advocates of women in the military say they are concerned that the couple's wartime romance, and England's pregnancy, could set back the gains women have made in the armed forces while the problem of corrupt or absent leadership goes uncorrected.

"Anyone who has looked at the [internal Army report into the Abu Ghraib abuses] can tell there was rotten leadership up and down the chain of command," said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington.

England's pregnancy, Manning said, "is one more manifestation of a unit that was out of control at every level."

"It always comes down to leadership," she said. "That's not to say under good leadership there will be zero pregnancies, but a high pregnancy rate would be one sign there may be some problems."

Pregnancy has been a hot-button topic as long as women have served in the armed forces, with motherhood leading to automatic discharge until the early 1970s. More recently, anecdotal stories have arisen of enlisted women who time pregnancies to avoid deployment or to get a ticket home from the war zone - the female version of the tales of self-inflicted wartime wounds that recur in every war.

There are few solid statistics, however, about wartime pregnancy rates. Pentagon officials say they do not track the number of pregnancies among deployed women. Among the individual branches of the military, the Navy has most closely tracked pregnancy rates through an annual or biannual survey conducted by one of its research divisions.

The survey was begun in 1988 by Patricia J. Thomas, a now-retired civilian researcher. In an interview, Thomas said pregnancy rates within the Navy have consistently been lower than among the women's civilian counterparts. They have also been dropping in recent years.

The pregnancy rate among all enlisted women in the Navy dropped from 16 percent in 1996 to 10 percent in 2001. For women assigned to sea duty, the pregnancy rate dropped from 12 percent in 1996 to 8 percent in 2000.

Donnelly, with the Center for Military Readiness, said the numbers still are too high - she noted that the Navy reported last year to an advisory committee on women in the military that 2,159 women assigned to sea duty in 2002 were reassigned to shore because of pregnancy.

In a report after the first gulf war, congressional investigators said the actual numbers of evacuations due to pregnancy were small and no more harmful to units than when men were pulled out for various medical reasons.

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