Women in Combat: Reality Catches Up

Photograph by John D McHugh/Reportage by Getty Images

U.S. medics from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion 82nd Aviation, General Supprot Aviation Battalion, tend to two Afghan women on a Blackhawk UH-60 helicopter as they fly to Bagram Air Field, from Parwan province, Afghanistan.

Written with David Lerman

With word that the Pentagon is lifting a ban on women serving in direct combat roles, women who have served in the military — including some who have come home with Purple Hearts — are hailing “a historic day.”

About 15 percent of all who serve in active duty in the armed forces are female, and some have played supporting combat roles — in combat helicopters, warplanes and on the ground.

“Today is a historic day for not only women currently serving in our armed forces, but for all of the women who have selflessly put their lives on the line in theaters of war throughout our nation’s history,” says Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a first-term member of Congress from Hawaii who has served two tours of duty in Iraq. “Female service members have contributed on the battlefield as far back as the Civil War, when some disguised themselves as men just to have the opportunity to serve their nation.”

Newly elected Rep. Tammy Duckworth, from Illinois, was a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, among the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq. On Nov. 12, 2004, when her helicopter was hit by an RPG, she lost both of her legs.

Women have increasingly been exposed to combat as the traditional front lines of battle have become blurred in an age of terrorism and unconventional warfare. Women also fly combat aircraft, including helicopters and carrier-based Navy fighters, and the Navy has begun assigning women to duty on submarines. At least 144 female troops have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and more than 860 have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.

The action means “qualified women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their brothers in arms, which they actually already have been doing with valor and distinction,” Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s move, which he plans to discuss with reporters tomorrow at the Pentagon, will be one of his final initiatives before his planned retirement. It removes one controversy from the agenda that former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Pentagon, would have to face if he wins Senate confirmation.

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