FORT BRAGG, N.C.
With their buddies driving Humvees and dodging snipers in Iraq, a group of seven Fort Bragg soldiers - all women - formed their own convoy yesterday, en route to a wreath-laying ceremony in Washington, D.C., to honor America's 1.7 million women vets, and all those who came before.
Their predecessors broke some of the most stubborn barriers in the US Armed Forces. But this group has made its own contributions to military lore: Capt. Betsy Hove is one of only six serving Army women to have graduated from the Army's Sapper leadership and combat training, and Capt. Lee Ann Campbell has logged more helicopter combat missions than any other woman pilot in her battalion's history. They joined several hundred women vets from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to lay a wreath and present a quilt made by women aboard the USS Comfort on the steps of the Women's Veterans Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
"We really want to honor all the ones who have gone before, but we want to make sure our living history is preserved, too," says Capt. Mara Boggs of the 82nd Airborne Division.
It was only 30 years ago that some women wore makeup to basic training and never laid a finger on a rifle trigger. But today's women veterans are poised to not only make history, but challenge popular perceptions of "girl soldiers" and battle national concerns over how, exactly, women should be allowed to serve. They're still barred from about 30 percent of active-duty roles, including Special Forces and ground combat on the front lines. Yet in the asymmetrical Iraq conflict, with its snipers, road bombs, and perilous supply lines, not carrying an M-16 is scant protection against getting killed. This war, as these seven Joans of Arc know, is helping define how this fastest-growing group of US veterans is popularly perceived.
"The Iraq war has seen the most women lost since World War II, and is really the first time that people are aware that women are out there, the first time that's in their face," says First Sgt. Paula Keehn (ret.), webmaster of militarywoman.org in Sioux County, Iowa, and a 20-year Army veteran. "You turn on the TV and there's a Humvee with a 50 caliber on top and a little tiny girl behind it, just shooting the heck out of somebody."
Though US servicewomen aren't fighting in Fallujah, roughly 1 in 7 Americans serving in Iraq is female, and the officers corps is rising rapidly, as is the women's medal count. So far, 26 American women soldiers and three civilians have died, many of them in combat.
American women have fought, sometimes disguised as men, since the Revolutionary War, and their legacy is one of rough ascent, struggling to dispel rumors and resentment in the trenches as they fight old stereotypes.
"In the Gulf War, the image was more of 'Mommy goes to war,' but today there's much more of a perception of women out there in the field, doing stuff that we used to think only men did," says Navy Capt. Lory Manning (ret.), director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute. "But that also means we've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly."
Indeed, from the kidnapping and dramatic rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, to the photos of Pfc. Lynndie England mocking Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, the narratives from this war have focused on stereotypes: the spunky waif and the deviant. There have been stories of rape and harrassment, too. But on the ground, women are forging ahead as part of an integrated Army and fighting for equal opportunity in the ranks.
"I'm not ready to say that integration is going smoothly, and I think the public needs to get a more balanced picture of what's going on," says Chris Hanson, a University of Maryland journalism professor writing a book about leadership's view of women soldiers, tentatively called "Spinning Justice."
Critics worry that the country is seeing the feminists' view, and not a reality that may be harder to bear. "One woman soldier was blown up by a roadside bomb ... but lived long enough to die in the arms of her husband, who was stationed nearby. It was a very, very sad story, yet hardly anyone ever heard of it," says Elaine Donnelly, the director of the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes combat roles for female soldiers.
Indeed, the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces were never heard by Congress after Bill Clinton was elected president, a failure that critics say set a bad precedent. What's more, says Ms. Donnelly, moves like the 1994 inclusion of women in assignments to house searches and MP patrols in dangerous neighborhoods were made without proper research into the effects of dangerous deployments on families. "We know what effect sonar has on whales, but we've never studied how children react to extended deployments of their mothers," she observes.
And though the prospect of a draft has been dismissed by President Bush, many fear reaction to the conscription of women, should a call-up ever be necessary. "I don't see how you could have a draft without women being eligible for it, and there would be a huge outcry," says Mr. Hanson.
Women's service is changing the outlook for veterans, too. This week, the Center for Women Veterans outlined a broad plan to study posttraumatic stress syndrome in women, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has designated73 outreach specialists to work with women vets.
Yet at the same time, older groups like the Women's Auxiliary Corps are losing members, as former men's organizations, including the American Legion, now admit women.
To Keehn, that's a price worth paying. "Before, women soldiers were always hidden," she says. "Today we still don't know exactly how many women were in Vietnam, but we were there, and performing, and our actions started the integration of women into the mainstream. Today, the whole thing is to try to get over the gender issue, stop looking at men and women, and look at it as a team."
That notion of unity was exactly the point for the seven Fort Bragg women at yesterday's wreath-laying ceremony. It was, they said, a small, symbolic way to show solidarity with those who have gone before - and to celebrate their own remarkable role in women's history.
"A lot of us in this group have broken the mold," says Captain Boggs.