The glass ceiling of war

According to a 2001 poll, almost half the country believes women in the military should not fight on the front lines. Regardless, women are fighting and dying in Iraq, a war that has no front lines and no end in sight.

Women have served the U.S. forces in an unofficial capacity since the revolutionary war when Margaret Corbin took over the cannons after her husband was shot down. Since then, many restrictions for female soldiers have been removed. More than 160,000 female soldiers have served in the Middle East since the war began in 2003 and today make up 15 percent of active duty forces. Still, the Pentagon prohibits female troops from holding positions that involve direct combat.

The reality on the ground and in Iraq specifically is very different. With an enemy notorious for bringing the front lines to the barracks and a troop shortage, the Army is finding ways to get around the rules. Instead of “assigning” female soldiers to support ground combat troops, which would need Pentagon and congressional approval, women are being “attached in direct support” of the battalions. Women are also serving in positions that require infantry skills, as military police and in search teams that go on raids with infantry units.

Women are dying in Iraq. According to, 82 female soldiers have been killed. Women are also winning medals for their skills and courage. Spc. Shavodsha Hodges was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device, for valorous conduct when she saved the lives of two other soldiers. As a truck driver, her job is not to engage in direct combat, but one could argue that ferrying essential goods to various outlying bases 50 to 70 times a month is equally dangerous. Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first woman to be killed in the Iraq conflict and the first Native American woman to die serving the U.S. military, was awarded the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal. Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the soldier and friend Piestewa saved, survived to become the reluctant poster girl during the media-heavy opening days of the war.

Unfortunately, evidence indicates that as the number of women in active duty has increased, so has the incidence of rape and sexual assault on the bases. The government appears reluctant to collect comprehensive statistics, but the preliminary numbers were bad enough to prompt Rumsfeld to order an investigation. Female vets return home with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and stories of bases nicknamed “generator city” because it’s so loud you wouldn’t hear a woman scream.

Rape is not any newer to the military than women themselves. A survey in 2003 of female veterans from Vietnam to the first Gulf War found that as many as 30 percent said they were raped in the military. This is outside of the teasing, jokes and near-constant propositioning that comes with being one of few women among hundreds of frustrated war-weary men.

The “boys club” structure of the military also makes it difficult for women to report rapes. Female soldiers legitimately worry that they will be seen as treacherous and incapable of holding their own in the armed forces.

Women serving in Iraq have proven themselves just as competent as their male compatriots. They have died alongside the men in defense of the United States with and without the full blessing of the Pentagon. Women who enlist risk this, as well as brutal rape by the very people they may have to rely on to protect them in battle.

Is a brutal rape what preceded the death of 20-year-old LaVena Johnson, ruled as a suicide despite a suspicious trail of blood and evidence that her body was burned? We may never know because the military refuses to support its own women.