Military, Congress ponder how to deploy female troops

In Iraq, rule to keep them out of combat doesn't

June 12, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sgt. Tara Jackson was riding shotgun this spring in a U.S. Army supply convoy snaking through the streets of Fallujah.

A truck up ahead struck a roadside bomb and enemy small arms fire flashed, she recalled, and she trained her M-16 assault rifle toward the enemy.

Emptying one clip, she said, she slammed in another and kept firing.

Jackson, a 32-year-old Baltimore native and member of the Army National Guard's 1229th Transportation Company from Parkville, said she was in combat for about one minute.

When the Army announces its new Combat Action Badge for soldiers who came under and returned fire, Jackson could qualify.

The rules haven't changed - women still may not serve in direct combat posts. But the badge is another acknowledgement of an issue that has troubled Congress and promises to persist: female soldiers in the line of fire in Iraq.

Though she received hostile-fire pay and could earn the badge, Jackson does not think women should be assigned to ground combat units.

"I don't see any irony in it," said Jackson, who now works on Guard recruiting.

"Women can continue to make contributions to the armed forces without serving in those positions."

Since 1994, women have been barred from so-called direct combat posts - such as infantry, armor, cannon artillery and Special Forces - whose primary mission is to engage in ground fighting. The military also excludes women from support units that remain with ground combat units.

But with the stubborn insurgency in Iraq, there are more random attacks and a less clear delineation between front and rear lines.

Thousands of women are woven into the fabric of the U.S. military presence in supportive roles, flying helicopters, serving as MPs and setting up communications for Iraqi units. And there are cultural sensitivities that bring female soldiers closer to danger, such as patting down Iraqi women during operations in Iraq's teeming cities.

Moreover, with a years-long U.S. military commitment under way and multiple tours for all soldiers, the chance of women coming under fire is higher than ever before.

Combat `inevitable'

Jackson considers herself a "support soldier," but she emphasizes the word soldier. Female soldiers can find themselves engaging the enemy, particularly during these times of shadowy insurgents and blurry notions of what constitutes front-line fighting.

"One day you may be in combat," she said, "even though you're not an infantryman. We're not training just for fun. We're training for the inevitable."

Sgt. Lorie Jewell, a 40-year-old Army journalist serving in Baghdad, sees it differently.

She has come under fire reporting from Mosul, in northern Iraq, and knows a mortar round could kill her inside the supposedly safe confines of Baghdad's Green Zone, where top U.S. officials are based. She has no interest in a front-line position but believes they should be open to women who can make the grade.

"I think [women] should be anywhere they want to be, as long as they're qualified to be there," she said in a phone interview from Baghdad.

"What is combat anymore? It's hard to define when you're here."

Still, Army officers say that in some cases, female soldiers, such as medics and military police, are being dispatched by officers to ground units in Iraq in apparent violation of regulations because of the overstretched nature of U.S. forces. If there's a mission and a qualified woman is available, she is sent.

"I don't think there's any desire to stick a thumb in the eye of the regulations," said one female officer, who requested anonymity, adding, "There's some winking and nodding."

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative watchdog group, said she, too, has heard reports of female soldiers, such as MPs, who appear to be skirting the decade-old regulations:

"They've been patrolling, going door to door, similar to infantry functions. This has got to be looked at very closely."

Last month, this dormant issue of women in combat broke into the open when conservatives on the House Armed Services Committee tried unsuccessfully to bar women from mixed-sex "forward support" companies. These units, which provide everything from food to fuel, are assigned to combat battalions.

"The nation should not put women into the front lines of combat," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and Army veteran who chairs the committee. "Forward support companies go forward into battle. That is why they are labeled `forward' support companies. The American people have never wanted to have women in combat."

Others, particularly Democrats, said such a move would impede the progress of women in the military and failed to take into account the realities of the current fight, where every soldier in Iraq - male or female - could face either a roadside bomb or armed attack.

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