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Female U.S. troops face new warfare
Barbara Toomer never considered herself any less of an Army officer than her male counterparts. But at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the 1950s, Toomer understood there were certain limitations to what women could aspire to do in the military.
"Women generals? I couldn't imagine that," said Toomer, an Army nurse during the Korean War. "The highest-ranking woman in the nurses corps at Fort Bragg was a lieutenant colonel - and she had been in the Army since World War I."
Sixty years later, women haven't achieved complete military parity - they still are not allowed in the infantry, in special operations forces or on submarines. But changing attitudes about gender, coupled with an altered combat landscape, have resulted in a military far different from anything Toomer could have imagined.
It also has become far more dangerous for women in uniform.
At Hill Air Force Base on Friday, hundreds turned out to remember three bomb-disposal technicians killed in Iraq last Sunday. Among the dead was Elizabeth Loncki, a 23-year-old native of New Castle, Del. - the first woman from a Utah-based unit to be killed in Iraq.
Loncki's death brought to 66 the number of U.S. military women killed since the start of the Iraq war, including at least 45 who died under hostile circumstances - a number higher than any past U.S. conflict.
While Loncki's job was by nature extremely dangerous, it wasn't uniquely so. Defense Department rules may bar women from direct combat specialties, but in Iraq, where there is no combat front, danger can come from any direction.
So no matter what their technical specialty, female service members in Iraq should be prepared to fight - and die - like their male counterparts, said Holly J. Chilcott-Rhynsburger, who served in Iraq in the first year of the war.
Chilcott-Rhynsburger was trained to work in the supply corps - a job that, in past conflicts, primarily has been a rear-echelon occupation.
But in Iraq, the young Army specialist found herself driving poorly armored trucks on bomb-laden roads and standing watch, machine gun in hand, at Baghdad International Airport.
"No females are allowed to have a combat military occupation specialty, but that doesn't keep us out of combat," Chilcott-Rhynsburger said. "I was chosen initially for a security force team - basically doing the same thing as any infantry soldier would do, riding around in trucks, ready to shoot back at anyone who shot at our convoy.
"I wasn't the only female assigned to that job."
In Iraq the military has found that, for some combat roles, a man just won't do. Women assigned to the Utah-based 872nd Ordnance Company, for example, often were attached to combat patrol units in Mosul. That way, officers reported, in the event they needed to search a female Iraqi suspect, it could be done in the most culturally sensitive way possible.
But even those women who are not selected for such warrior-type tasks remain in danger of the Iraqi insurgency's deadliest weapons anytime they travel from base to base. At least 27 U.S. women have been killed in roadside bomb and suicide bomb attacks in Iraq, according to Defense Department casualty reports.
And even those who stay on base are in danger from mortar and rocket attacks. At least eight U.S. women have been killed by indirect fire in Iraq.
Some see parity in the sacrifice. Elaine Donnelly sees trouble.
Donnelly, who lobbies against increased combat roles for women on behalf of the Center for Military Readiness, said she supports women, like Loncki, who have pursued jobs in the military. When they are killed, she said, "I grieve for every one of them, just like you would when men are killed."
But Donnelly also believes the U.S. military is blatantly overstepping its own rules limiting how females are used in war. Reports that women have slid into positions formerly reserved for men are not inspiring, she said, but "very disturbing."
For example: The inclusion of women in teams of American trainers who fight alongside Iraqis - a job Donnelly said women are banned from doing under Pentagon rules.
"These Iraqi soldiers are supposed to be learning combat skills," Donnelly said. "It's not a charm school."
At the heart of Donnelly's argument is the belief that placing women on the battlefield might endanger themselves and their male counterparts, noting that "physical capabilities" and "sexual entanglements" may hamper safety, morale and discipline.
But Alicia Menlove, who recently joined the Utah Air National Guard with her twin sister, Amanda, sees things differently.
In enlisting, the Menlove twins followed the footsteps of their mother, a retired Army nurse.
While not in a combat-related military specialty, Alicia Menlove said she understands that in Iraq and Afghanistan, everyone is a potential combatant.
"I'm OK with that," she said. "I feel I'm every bit as equal as anyone else I work with."
The twins' brother, Wade, said he is confident that's true. And having been to Iraq himself - where he was stationed at a base routinely pelted with mortar fire - he understands that when his sisters are deployed they likely would face the same dangers he did.
He acknowledged that he would worry if the twins were called to duty in Iraq.
"They're my younger sisters, and I think you're going to be a bit more protective of younger siblings," he said.
But he didn't think he would be any less worried if they were younger brothers.