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Women In War: 'I've Lived Out There With The Guys'

Left: Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught during her time serving in Vietnam; when she joined the military, she received training on how to put on makeup — but not how to fire a weapon. Right: An illustrated poster of Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for valor. Both women are profiled in this series.
Left: Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught during her time serving in Vietnam; when she joined the military, she received training on how to put on makeup — but not how to fire a weapon. Right: An illustrated poster of Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for valor. Both women are profiled in this series.

Part 1 in a series.

During the past 10 years, the roles women play in the military have changed. More than 200,000 women have served in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and many of them have found themselves in direct ground combat situations, despite a Pentagon policy that's designed to prevent that from happening.

"This will be the first generation of veterans where large segments of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat," Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said last year. "And I know what the law says and I know what it requires, but I'd be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today or who's served in Iraq over the last few years did so without facing the same risks of their male counterparts."

In a weeklong series, we're going to take a close look at what it means to be a woman in uniform today — how that's changed over generations and whether there's more change coming soon. The series will profile the stories of five women at different stages of their military careers, with different perspectives on women's role in combat and different expectations for their future.

At the core of the series is a discussion about the Pentagon's current policy that prevents women from being assigned to direct ground combat units. Critics of the policy say it should be changed for several reasons, mainly because it simply does not reflect reality on the ground. Women are fighting in wars with no clear front lines where anyone in uniform can get caught up in direct combat.

'I Lived Like That'

In 2009, Congress set up the Military Leadership Diversity Commission to evaluate the combat exclusion policy and determine whether it should be reversed. The group is made up of high-ranking former and current military officials. They've been meeting regularly for more than a year, and at times, the debate has gotten heated.

Late last year, a panel of active-duty women and veterans testified before the commission. During that exchange, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen expressed his concerns about getting rid of the ban.

"Here is my problem," Peterson said. "We're talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what's on your back, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you have seen how infantrymen, the ground troopers, live, and how many of you would volunteer to live like that?"

Tammy Duckworth was helicopter pilot in Iraq and lost both of her legs in combat. Now she's the No. 2 at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She replied immediately: "I've lived like that. I've lived out there with the guys, and I would do it. It's about the job."

Besides getting the policy to reflect reality on the ground, there are other arguments for opening up the combat arms to women. A major reason is the issue of promotion. The U.S. military recently commissioned Ann Dunwoody as the first female four-star general. But Dunwoody rose through the ranks in logistics, not through artillery or infantry command — and it's those combat jobs that get women on the fast track to big promotions. And since women can't have those jobs, critics of the policy say they're put at a disadvantage.

Supporters of the current policy say it is clear women are already doing this kind of work to some extent, but, they ask, should they be? That's the question. And they point to several issues.

Pregnancy. What if a woman in a combat unit gets pregnant and can't deploy when her unit needs her?

Privacy. There are perpetual concerns about how men and women can undress and carry out bodily functions in the tight and intimate living conditions found in war zones.

Unit cohesion. Does having a woman around create distractions?

A 'Crisp' Line

Kayla Williams was a sergeant in the Army, and in 2003 her unit was part of the initial invasion that rolled across Iraq. She's out of the military now and lives near Washington, D.C. As an Army intelligence officer, Williams was put in several situations where she was exposed to combat even though that wasn't in her job description.

At one point during her deployment, she and her unit were sent to a remote outpost in the northern part of Iraq. For six months, she was the only woman living with an all-male unit on the side of a mountain. She describes the utter boredom that infected her unit in Iraq for days on end as they waited to pick up enemy signals. There was nothing to distract them — no phones, no Internet — so young men in her unit made up ways to kill time.

"They played a game of throwing rocks to try to get the rocks through the holes that had developed in the crotches of all their pants, and later, they started throwing rocks at my boobs as well as part of this game," Williams says. "So is that harassing me or including me? Treating me the way they were treating one another? I thought I was being included and treated as one of the guys, but it's never that simple."

In fact, it got really complicated.

"They would include me in their camaraderie, but every once in a while it would slip over a line, and they would want to see my boobs. It was just tricky," Williams says. "Later, I came to think that if I wanted to avoid things going in a direction I wasn't comfortable with, I had to keep that line much crisper."

Sexual Harassment Vs. Sexual Assault

Williams' story brings up another controversial part of the women in combat debate: sexual harassment and sexual assault. Just last week a group of veterans and active-duty service members sued the Pentagon, saying some military commanders aren't doing enough to prosecute sexual assault cases. The Pentagon says the issue is a "command priority," and that it is working on making sure all troops are safe from sexual abuse.

Williams says there are all kinds of reasons why sexual harassment and assault can happen, but one source of the problem in the military, she says, is that women aren't seen as equals by other troops.

"I believe that the combat exclusion actually exacerbates gender tensions and problems within the military, because the fact that women can't be in combat arms jobs allows us to be portrayed as less than fully soldiers," Williams says.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission is expected to tell Congress next month that the combat exclusion policy should be eliminated.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The audio and a previous Web version of this story incorrectly referred to the helicopters piloted by Tammy Duckworth as Apaches. They were Black Hawks.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.