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Do US women belong in the thick of the fighting?

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Maggie Williams and her daughter Sam Huff had much in common.

As a teenager 35 years ago, Ms. Williams joined the US Marine Corps and became an air traffic controller, directing jet fighters and helicopters in Vietnam as the war there was winding down. Back in the United States, she began a career in law enforcement, married a police officer, and raised a family.

When she was just 16, Ms. Huff told her parents she wanted to join the US Army right out of high school, and later start a career with the FBI. She toughed out boot camp last year and then joined a military police unit driving Humvees through the mean streets of Iraq.

But there the mother-daughter similarity ends.

On April 18, Pfc. Huff's Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Baghdad, and she was killed. Posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery recently. She was 18.

As Memorial Day approaches, one might say that Maggie Williams and Sam Huff are bookends for the history of women in the US military in the modern era. As a marine, Williams did a job that was very traditionally male. Huff - the 37th (and latest) American woman to be killed in Iraq - epitomizes the current debate over whether women, even if they volunteer, should be fighting alongside men.

Congress has been debating the issue this week. Some lawmakers want to assert more congressional control over Pentagon policies that have opened up more and more jobs to women in recent years, including those that increasingly put them in the thick of the shooting.

Of the 37 women lost, 25 were from hostile causes such as rocket or grenade attacks, ambushes, and roadside bombs.

In a way, the job expansion is a pattern that has occurred since the Vietnam War: Women demonstrate excellence in such positions as fighter pilot, military police officer, and heavy equipment operator, and then are more likely to have perilous assignments - particularly during a recruiting shortage. Some welcome the opportunity; but some do not, according to surveys of women in uniform.


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