Captain Dawn Halfaker saw a flash of light and heard an explosion—then suffered shrapnel wounds, a 12-day coma, and the amputation of her right arm.
Sergeant Rebekah Havrilla collected the remains of a suicide bomber and his victims from a room where blood ran down the walls—then endured years of nightmares.
Private First Class Lori Piestewa was ambushed by insurgents, who killed three of the passengers in her Humvee—then was taken captive and died of her head wounds.
If you ask the U.S. military, none of these women officially served in battle. That’s because females in the armed forces don’t technically fight in ground combat. But the Department of Defense (DOD) policy belies the reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its willful avoidance of the truth denies military women safety training, health care, and career advancement.
“It’s time to give servicewomen the recognition they deserve,” says Brigadier General Evelyn Foote, president emerita of the Alliance for National Defense in Alexandria, Virginia. “Let’s join the 21st century and shed this exclusionary policy.”
Military women today constitute almost one-sixth of the armed forces, but for most of its history, the U.S. military kept women out of battle, relegating them to support positions such as nursing. Although more than 80 percent of military jobs are now open to women, the DOD moved in 1994 to ban women from serving in “combat operations” such as the short-range field artillery, Special Forces, and infantry.
Is there a good reason for these bans? Not according to a 1997 report conducted by the Rand Corporation, which found that full gender integration in the armed services would have little effect on “readiness, cohesion, and morale.” And both the Military Leadership Diversity Commission and the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services have urged the DOD to lift the combat ban.
Modern military conflicts put every soldier, male or female, directly in the line of fire. For instance, according to Patricia Hayes, national director of women’s health for the Veterans Health Administration, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military today is driving a truck—a position that many women hold.
“The issue of women in battle is coming to a head now because there’s no demarcation between combat and non-combat in the Middle East,” says former U.S. Representative Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who served on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee from 1973 to 1996. “As it stands, there no longer is an official front line.”
Today, women represent 15 percent of the active military, 18 percent of the reserve, and 20 percent of all new recruits. With so many women in service (and with submarine assignments just opened to women in 2010), the DOD may no longer be able to keep arguing that it can legally bar women from certain jobs. “Everyone in uniform is in combat,” says Representative Susan Davis (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel. “Yet women in uniform are not afforded the proper training for combat since they are technically barred from engaging the enemy this way.”
If they were officially allowed to serve in battle, military women could better protect themselves from injury and could get better care if they were hurt. Consider the bind of the military’s “lioness” and “female engagement” teams of women soldiers who gather information from conservative Muslim women whose beliefs prevent them from talking directly to men.
“These female intelligence service members are ‘attached’ to units and not directly assigned to them,” explains Greg Jacob, policy director for the New York City–based Servicewomen’s Action Network. “And when their work is not documented by their parent command, their record doesn’t always reflect their combat-related injuries.”
Captain Barbara Wilson, creator of the website American Women in Uniform, says that when she served in the Air Force back in the 1950s, the men in her unit treated women recruits as “nothing more than secretaries in uniform.” Even though Wilson could best them all at firing practice, the men claimed women couldn’t operate machinery. “There was only one way to respond to this discrimination,” says Wilson. “I tuned it out and just focused on my work.”
When Wilson entered the service, critics also said women were too delicate to fight, or to pull fallen male soldiers to safety. They said the distraction of women batting their eyelashes would destroy military units’ camaraderie. They predicted that if women and men served in battle together, they would be too busy flirting, or feuding, to effectively ward off the enemy. “None of these ridiculous prophecies came true,” says Pat Schroeder.
“From the push-ups and drills of basic training onward, I busted my ass to keep up with the men so they had no reason to give me grief over my gender,” says Sergeant Rebekah Havrilla, who spent a year in Afghanistan defusing bombs. “But I was the only female on my team and had to fend off sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse every day.”
When it comes to rape, which Havrilla suffered in 2007 at the hands of a male colleague, the military’s misogyny shows itself at its worst. Military women are twice as likely as civilian women to be assaulted, often by the very men who are supposedly their comrades. One in three female vets reports rape or attempted rape. And if a soldier becomes pregnant as a result of sexual assault, military health benefits won’t cover an abortion.
Women in the military say they are afraid to visit latrines at night because they could be assaulted. During recent congressional hearings (which keep racking up in number but do little to stem rampant rapes), one woman said she was reluctant to report being attacked because she feared she would be demoted for failing to carry a weapon when it happened.
“Opening more military jobs to women could help address the rampant problem of sexual assault,” says Nancy Duff Campbell, copresident of the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center. “We know from experience in other nontraditional employment environments—for example, with women police and firefighters—that when their members hit critical mass, incidents of sexual harassment declined.”
While the U.S. government says women are not fit to serve in combat, the rest of the world doesn’t agree—at least not Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, and Sweden.
In late September, Australia, which contributes the largest contingent of non-NATO soldiers to Afghanistan, was added to that list. “In the future,” announced Australia’s Defense Minister Stephen Smith, “your role in the defense force will be determined on your ability, not on the basis of your sex.”
There’s also no denying that U.S. women are already serving with valor in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan right now.
Consider Nashville’s Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, who was awarded the Silver Star for saving members of her convoy when it was ambushed by 34 enemy soldiers. Or consider Lieutenant Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs and shattered her right arm when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. Duckworth went on to serve as a high-ranking Veterans Affairs administrator, to race two Chicago Marathons on a hand-cranked bicycle, and to recently launch a vigorous campaign for Congress in Illinois. Oh yes, and she’s still a member of the Illinois Army National Guard.
According to the iCasualties website, 136 servicewomen have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and by the DOD’s own admission, 60 percent of these deaths have stemmed from “hostile attacks.” “The loss of life in battle can be the ultimate act of bravery,” says retired Air Force pilot Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. “There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing it said that this sacrifice isn’t happening, that somehow the loss of a servicewoman’s life in battle isn’t as noble or heroic or as meaningful.”
Molly M. Ginty is an award-winning reporter who has written for Ms., On the Issues Magazine, Women’s eNews, PBS, Planned Parenthood, and RH Reality Check. Excerpted from Ms. Magazine, a publication that’s been on the leading edge of feminist politics, arts, and culture since 1972.