Women in Combat
Something else made this war different for Americans: women in combat. This became clear within days of the invasion of Iraq, on March 23, 2003, when a unit of the 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn near Nasiriyeh and was ambushed. Americans became familiar with Jessica Lynch, who was wounded and captured in the ambush. Less media attention was paid to Shoshana Johnson, Lynch’s Panamanian-born comrade who was also captured (and later released), or to Lori Piestewa, a Hopi soldier who tried to drive her Humvee (in which Lynch was a passenger) to safety and became the first female service member killed in Iraq.
Between 2001 and 2013, 300,000 female service members were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: 11% of US forces. More than 130 women have died in the two conflicts and more than 800 have been wounded. Two have received the Silver Star, the third-highest medal for valor. As the website of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America explains, “Although excluded from official ‘combat roles,’ there is no clear front line in the current conflicts. Many female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to direct fire while serving in support roles...Even those who don’t travel outside the security perimeter of a military base are constantly threatened by mortars and rockets. As one female veteran put it, ‘Life in Iraq and Afghanistan is combat.’” Compounding this is a perception on the part of many civilians that women “don’t serve.” Stories from female veterans of being ignored or assumed to be a girlfriend, sometimes while male soldiers who haven’t deployed are being bought drinks for their “service,” are common.
An additional challenge of the current war is that in many regions of Iraq and Afghanistan, cultural traditions prohibit men from touching or searching local women. As a result, female service members have frequently been “attached” to combat teams, despite being officially banned from combat. Now called Female Engagement Teams (FET), the first women attached to combat teams were called Team Lioness, members of which came under fire in Ramadi in April 2004. Their experiences, documented in the 2008 documentary, Lioness, were an inspiration for the female soldiers in Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq. In 2012, there were more than 40 FETs in Afghanistan, often consisting of a handful of women attached to combat bases with 150 to 200 men.
Rape has always accompanied war; it has often been treated as policy toward defeated populations. Now, it is also a problem within the ranks. As the number of women in the armed forces has increased, more attention has been paid to rape and sexual assault (under the term Military Sexual Trauma). The documentary film The Invisible War highlights the problem. According to the film’s website, “more than 95,000 service members [female and male] have been sexually assaulted in the U. S. military” with less than 5% of those assaults prosecuted and less than 2% resulting in imprisonment. In most cases the alleged perpetrator is superior in rank to the victim (often in a command situation) and under current regulations all investigations have to flow up the regular chain of command. Department of Defense (DoD) estimates that 20% of all active-duty female soldiers are victims of sexual assault; the estimates are higher for women in combat zones. In a November 2013 article in The New York Times, DoD reported a 50% increase in sexual assault complaints from October 2012 to June 2013, and officials said “the numbers had continued to rise.”