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.