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The expanding role of GI Jane

Women now make up about 15 percent of the US armed forces, and the many mothers here mourn missed birthdays and bedtime stories.

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American women are more fully engaged in warfare than ever before. They are striking targets, taking fire, guarding Iraqi prisoners of war, and driving trucks laden with supplies amid ambushes and snipers. Breaking old social taboos, they face capture, injury, and death - risks highlighted in Nasiriyah yesterday with the dramatic hospital rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, missing for 10 days since her maintenance company was overrun and she, with seven others (including another woman, Spc. Shoshana Johnson), was captured.

Currently, women make up about 15 percent of the US armed forces - a proportion that's nearly doubled since 1980 and is up by a third since the last Gulf War. More than 90 percent of service positions are open to women. And though women remain barred from about 30 percent of active-duty positions - including Special Forces and frontline ground-combat roles - the front lines, it now seems, are everywhere: With guerrilla fighting and supply lines that snake through the sand, a medic careening over the desert in her canvas-topped Humvee can be as vulnerable as a young private crouched in Baghdad with his M-16.

Some women believe that more ground-combat roles should be open to them: As long as they can lift and load the rounds, they say, women should be allowed to command tanks and artillery platoons. Women, after all, perform crucial jobs men cannot - frisking Iraqi females for hidden weapons at checkpoints, or entering rooms reserved for women in Muslim societies. Congress lifted the ban on women serving on combat ships after the first Gulf War, and the Pentagon did away with its "risk rule," which outlined where women could and couldn't serve, according to the likelihood of enemy contact.

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