Male, female soldiers die, and we feel equally numb

October 15, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

When Maryland's Emily Perez died in Iraq, her West Point graduation picture -- with all the brass buttons and the plumage and her triumphant smile -- made the pages of newspapers everywhere.

That picture, unlike the ones of soldiers' coffins that we are rarely permitted to see, opened a painful conversation most of us do not want to have.

Who should we ask to defend us? Just our sons? Or our daughters, too?

Emily Perez was a stellar student at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's County and she went on to become the first female command sergeant in the history of West Point.

She was not Jessica Lynch, looking for a way out of a dead-end life and some money for college. Emily Perez had choices, probably many choices.

Perez died when her Humvee ran over a roadside bomb. She was leading a convoy as part of a support unit. Technically, she was not "in combat." Women are still not permitted to serve in combat units.

But in a war where the enemy is not in front of you, but all around you, that is a distinction that is hard to make.

Driving a truck in Iraq may be as dangerous as patrolling a hostile neighborhood. Most of the more than 60 women who have died there have been killed by roadside bombs.

Perez's death in Iraq did not elicit any more reaction from the American public than the sadness inspired by her short life and lost promise.

It turns out, we are not more outraged by the deaths of our daughters than we are by the deaths of our sons. The reality of young women returning from war dead or maimed was supposed to be the end of any discussion of women in combat.

But it hasn't happened.

While the public may be growing disillusioned with this war, there was no more outrage over Emily Perez's death than there has been over the deaths of nearly 3,000 young men.

That's not the kind of gender equity we should be striving for -- that we are equally numb to the loss of young lives whatever their sex.

Our aim should be to ascribe the same motives to young women who enlist or who enter service academies as we do to the young men: patriotism, education, a fresh start, adventurism, an opportunity to excel. Or simply, a job.

And we should encumber these decisions with the same risks, the same rewards, the same opportunities, the same responsibilities for young women as we do for young men.

And if there is a draft -- as there may be after the next presidential election -- then our daughters as well as our sons should be subject to service if for no other reason than I do not love my daughter more than I love my son.

A draft that includes women may have unintended consequences if the rich and powerful realize that both their sons and their daughters could be put in harms way.

It is a "Sophie's choice" that might forestall another rush to war.

One final thought.

I live in Annapolis and my son graduated from the Naval Academy. You can't hang around Midshipmen for more than 10 minutes without hearing them grouse that their female classmates are held to lesser physical standards than they are.

These are accomplished and successful men who don't like the idea of anybody -- and certainly not a woman -- being given any kind of a head start or a leg up, real or imagined.

It has been 30 years since the first women were admitted to military academies, and still they are resented.

I waste my breath when I try to argue the fine points of equal opportunity with these young men.

But they have no answer when I say that Emily Perez is equally dead.

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