Before 2001, America’s military women had rarely seen ground combat. But the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, often fought in marketplaces and alleyways, have changed that.

As the convoy rumbled up the road in Iraq, Spc. Veronica Alfaro was struck by the beauty of fireflies dancing in the night. Then she heard the unmistakable pinging of tracer rounds and, in a Baghdad moment, realized the insects were illuminated bullets.

She jumped from behind the wheel of her gun truck, grabbed her medical bag and sprinted 50 yards to a stalled civilian truck. On the way, bullets kicked up dust near her feet. She pulled the badly wounded driver to the ground and got to work.

Despite her best efforts, the driver died, but her heroism that January night last year earned Alfaro a Bronze Star for valor. She had already received a combat action badge for fending off insurgents as a machine gunner.

“I did everything there,” Alfaro, 25, said of her time in Iraq. “I gunned. I drove. I ran as a truck commander. And underneath it all, I was a medic.”

Before 2001, America’s military women had rarely seen ground combat. Their jobs kept them mostly away from enemy lines, as military policy dictates.

But the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, often fought in marketplaces and alleyways, have changed that. In both countries, women repeatedly have proved their mettle in combat. The number of high-ranking women and women who command all-male units has climbed considerably along with their status in the military.

“Iraq has advanced the cause of full integration for women in the Army by leaps and bounds,” said Peter R. Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served as executive officer to Gen. David H. Petraeus while he was the top American commander in Iraq. “They have earned the confidence and respect of male colleagues.”

Their success, widely known in the military, remains largely hidden from public view. In part, this is because their most challenging work is often the result of a quiet circumvention of military policy. Women are barred from joining combat branches like the infantry, armour, Special Forces and most field artillery units, and from doing support jobs while living with those smaller units. Women can lead some male troops into combat as officers, but they cannot serve with them in battle.

Yet, over and over, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army commanders have resorted to bureaucratic trickery when they needed more soldiers for crucial jobs, like bomb disposal and intelligence. On paper, for instance, women have been “attached” to a combat unit rather than “assigned.”

This quiet change has not come seamlessly — and it has altered military culture on the battlefield in ways large and small. Women need separate bunks and bathrooms. They face sexual discrimination and rape, and counselors and rape kits are now common in war zones. Commanders also confront a new reality: that soldiers have sex, and some will be quickly evacuated because they are pregnant.

Nonetheless, as soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women have done nearly as much in battle as their male counterparts: patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, disposed of explosives, and driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads. They have proved indispensable in their ability to interact with and search Iraqi and Afghan women for weapons, a job men cannot do for cultural reasons. The Marine Corps has created revolving units — “lionesses” — dedicated to just this task.

A small number of women have even conducted raids, engaging the enemy directly in total disregard of existing policies.

But the U.S. military may well be steps ahead of Congress, where opening ground combat jobs to women has met deep resistance in the past.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a group that opposes fully integrating women into the Army, said women were doing these jobs with no debate and no congressional approval.

“I fault the Pentagon for not being straight with uniformed women,” said Donnelly, who supported unsuccessful efforts by some in Congress in 2005 to restrict women’s roles in these wars. “It’s an ‘anything goes’ situation.”

Poll numbers, however, show that a majority of the public supports allowing women to do more on the battlefield. Fifty-three per cent of the respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll in July said they would favour permitting women to “join combat units, where they would be directly involved in the ground fighting.”

The successful experiences of military women in Iraq and Afghanistan are being used to bolster the efforts of groups who favour letting gay soldiers serve openly. Those opposed to such change say that permitting service members to state their sexual orientation would disrupt the tight cohesion of a unit and lead to harassment and sexual liaisons — arguments also used against allowing women to serve alongside men. But women in Iraq and Afghanistan have debunked many of those fears.

“They made it work with women, which is more complicated in some ways, with sex-segregated facilities and new physical training standards,” said David Stacy, a lobbyist with the Human Rights Campaign, a group working for gay equality. “If the military could make that work with good discipline and order, certainly integrating open service of gay and lesbians is within their capability.”

From necessity, opportunity

No one envisioned that Afghanistan and Iraq would elevate the status of women in the armed forces.

But the Iraq insurgency obliterated conventional battle lines. The fight was on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated, the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting. Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.

“We literally could not have fought this war without women,” said Nagl, who is now president of the Center for a New American Security, a military research institution in Washington.

Of the 2 million Americans who have fought in these wars since 2001, more than 220,000 of them, or 11 per cent, have been women. Like men, some women have come home bearing the mental and physical scars of bombs and bullets, loss and killing. Women who are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars appear to suffer rates of post-traumatic stress disorder comparable to those of men, a recent study showed.

Men still make up the vast majority of the 5,000 war deaths since 2001; nearly 4,000 have been killed by enemy action. But 121 women have also died, 66 killed in combat. The rest died in nonhostile action, which includes accidents, illness, suicide and friendly fire. And 620 women have been wounded.

Despite longstanding fears about how the public would react to women coming home in coffins, Americans have responded to their deaths and injuries no differently than to those of male casualties, analysts say. That is a reflection of changing social mores but also a result of the growing number of women — more than 356,000 today — who serve in the armed forces, including the Reserves and the National Guard, 16 percent of the total. Overall, women say the gains they made in Iraq and Afghanistan have overshadowed the challenges they faced in a combat zone.

“As horrible as this war has been, I fully believe it has given women so many opportunities in the military,” said Linsay Rousseau Burnett, who was one of the first women to serve as a communication specialist with a brigade combat team in Iraq. “Before, they didn’t have the option.”

Although women make up only 6 percent of the top military ranks, these war years have ushered in a series of notable promotions. In 2008, 57 women were serving as generals and admirals in the active-duty military, more than double the number a decade earlier. Last year, Ann E. Dunwoody was the first woman to become a four-star Army general, the highest rank in today’s military and a significant milestone for women. And many more women now lead all-male combat troops into battle.

The Army does not keep complete statistics on the sex of soldiers who receive medals and tracks only active-duty soldiers. But two women have been awarded Silver Stars, one of the military’s highest honours. Many more women have been awarded medals for valour, the statistics show.

To be sure, not all women in the military embrace the idea of going into combat. Like men, a few do what they can to try to get out of deployments. Military women and commanders say some women have timed their pregnancies to avoid deploying or have gotten pregnant in Iraq so they would be sent home. The Army declined to release numbers on how many women have been evacuated from a war zone for pregnancy.

In addition to the dangers, military life remains gruelling in other ways, especially for mothers juggling parenting and the demands of the military, which require long absences from home. And while the military is doing more than ever to address the threat of sexual harassment and rape, it remains a persistent problem. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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