Heather Wilson

LONG BEACH, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–At Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, Calif., Lucita Warglo and Kathryn Brady, both sergeants, are on stand by to deploy to the Gulf region. While there, Warglo will serve as an electrician, keeping runway lights and camps powered. Brady will handle personnel issues. Neither woman knows where she will be stationed or how long she will be there. But both know they’re ready for the assignment and the danger it may entail.

“We’re just like the guys. We’re all going to be dodging bullets,” says Warglo, pointing out that runways are major military targets.

“You don’t have to be on the front line to be somewhere your life is in danger,” adds Brady.

Now that the United States has gone to war with Iraq, it will likely be the largest deployment of women to a combat theater to date–and the first major test of women’s expanded combat roles since Desert Storm.

As women head to the Gulf again, they make up a larger percent of the Armed Forces than they did during Desert Storm. The percent of women in the active duty population has continuously increased over the past two decades. Women now make up approximately 15 percent of active military personnel.

Warglo and Brady’s upcoming tour in the Gulf also marks the culmination of a long history of women serving during war.

Winning the Right to Serve

Women currently make up 6 percent of military veterans in the United States. Although not officially recognized as members of the Armed Forces until 1901, women have served in every major war in U.S. history. During the Civil War, women joined both sides as spies and nurses, and one, Dr. Mary Walker, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service as a field surgeon and the hardships she endured as a prisoner of war. She was the first, and only, woman to receive this honor.

Women became an official part of the U.S. Armed Forces when the Army established the Nurse Corps in 1901. Seven years later, the Navy created its own Nurse Corps. World War I marked the first time women who weren’t nurses could join the military. Over 30,000 women enlisted during the war, including 10,000 who served overseas. When the war ended, they were discharged from duty.

Under the slogan “free the men to fight,” servicewomen’s roles expanded during World War II. Women served as nurses, parachute riggers, mechanics, map-makers, translators, intelligence operatives and welders, among other assignments. During the fall of the Philippines, 81 women were captured by the Japanese and spent 37 months in prisoner of war camps. Over 400 women were killed in the war, and approximately 400,000 women served at home and overseas.

Gender Bar Lifted After Two World Wars

In 1948, Congress passed legislation that permitted women to serve during peacetime as members of the regular forces–but a cap was placed on enlistment: Women could not make up more than 2 percent of Armed Forces personnel. The law also restricted women from combat units and from officer ranks above colonel or captain.

Women continued to enlist in spite of the restrictions. During the Korean War, over 600 women served near the front and more than 120,000 served stateside.

“Women have always been an all-volunteer force. She’s there because she wanted to serve her country . . . and she ought to be proud of that,” says retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter.

In 1967, Congress removed the cap on the percentage of women in the Armed Forces and dropped the legal ceiling on promotions that kept them out of the highest officer ranks. Mutter joined the Marines as an officer that same year and went on to become the first female three-star general in the Marine Corps. She now chairs the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Armed Services.

Approximately 7,500 American military women, mostly nurses, served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Seven were killed in the line of duty.

“We flew our asses off,” says a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran. The retired Air Force colonel does not wish to be named.

She recalls that she served two years in Vietnam as a nurse on aircraft evacuating wounded troops from the battle fields. Over a three-day period during the Tet Offensive, her crew evacuated 1,500 wounded soldiers from bases in Vietnam to make room for the casualties pouring in.

“You didn’t have time to cry. You didn’t have time to be afraid,” she says. “I don’t regret one day of it,” she adds, “I never questioned why I was a nurse again. I knew why I was a nurse and I was a damn good one.”

Storming the Brass Ceiling in the Gulf Region

Desert Storm marked the largest deployment of women to a combat theater in U.S. history. More than 40,000 women served in the Gulf, flying helicopters on reconnaissance and search and rescue missions, driving convoys, staffing patriot missile placements, piloting planes and guarding POWs, among other duties. Women comprised 7 percent of the deployed force. Thirteen women were killed in the line of duty during Desert Storm and two were taken as prisoners of war.

Army surgeon Maj. Rhonda Cornum was taken captive after the Black Hawk helicopter carrying her and seven other crew members was shot down by Iraqi forces. Suffering from a bullet wound in her shoulder and with both arms broken, Cornum spent eight days in captivity and was sexually assaulted by an Iraqi guard.

By the war’s end, servicewomen had helped to liberate more than Kuwait. Their performance opened up new roles for women serving in combat. Shortly after the war, Congress repealed the restriction on women flying in combat roles. In 1993, lawmakers ended the ban on women serving on combat ships.

“That change in the law was a recognition that the barriers facing women were artificial ones,” says U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, a retired Air Force officer and the only woman veteran in Congress.

As Women Return to the Gulf, Restrictions Remain

Adds defense advisory committee chair Mutter: “I think this war will find women in roles they weren’t in, in Desert Storm. We will prove one way or another whether that works, and I have no doubt it will.”

Despite their increased roles and representation in the ranks, women are not permitted to serve in direct ground combat, which excludes them from infantry, armored and special forces units. Submarine warfare also remains closed to women.

“I don’t see major changes as we saw in the Gulf War coming out of this war, but it’s hard to predict that kind of thing,” says Mutter, who stressed she was expressing her personal opinion, and not the policy of the defense advisory committee.

Ground combat remains a controversial issue. The advisory committee came under fire from conservatives because it recommended that women be assigned to submarines, to the crews of vehicles that launch rockets from the rear of combat areas, and to helicopter crews of special operations units. The Defense Department disbanded the committee, wrote a new charter, and recently appointed new members, Mutter among them.

“Women in combat is not about equity or equal opportunity,” says House member Wilson. “The point is National Security . . . Some of the best and most capable are women.”

Though Wilson played a part in the legislation that opened air combat to women, she has reservations about allowing women in combat on the ground.

“Far fewer women could meet the stringent physical requirements of ground combat,” she says.

As they head to the Gulf, Brady and Warglo don’t think they have anything to prove as women soldiers.

“If you’re working with someone . . . you don’t think about how they are different from you,” says Brady.

“We’re pretty much equal,” says Warglo “The people I serve with, we’re all a team.”

Those sentiments are reflected in a quote from Desert Storm survivor Maj. Cornum, etched on a glass panel on the upper terrace of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

“The qualities that are most important in all military jobs–things like integrity, moral courage, and determination–have nothing to do with gender.”

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer living in Long Beach, Calif.

For more information:

Women’s Education and Research Institute–
“Women in the Military”:

Military Women Veterans:

The Department of Defense Celebrates Women’s History Month: