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US Female POW Forces America to Look at  Issue of Women in Combat - 2003-04-01

Less than a week after the bombing in Iraq began, Americans were reminded of the stark realities of warfare. Images of five U.S. prisoners of war were broadcast around the world, rattling many, and the footage of Army Specialist Shoshawna Johnson was particularly disturbing. The single mother, 33, sat on a couch, her hands twisting nervously in her lap, her eyes darting back and forth between the camera lens and an unseen person to her right. Those pictures have revived a debate about whether women should be allowed to serve so close to the frontlines of combat.

Even those who insist women have a right to serve in combat positions, and that the military has an obligation and a vested interest in allowing them to do so, admit they were shaken by the fear evident in Specialist Johnson's face.

"I could feel her fear coming out at me from the television. And I also saw the images of her fellow captives, the young men who seemed to be biting back their fear," says Lory Manning, a retired U.S. Navy captain who now directs the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute. "I have to tell you, her fear grabbed me in a way that theirs did not, because they were holding it back, she was letting it out. And it rips you up. But that doesn't mean that she doesn't have the strength to cope with it."

Shoshawna Johnson is the first U.S. servicewoman to be captured since a law went into effect in 1994 opening up 92 percent of all military positions to women. That law was spearheaded by the U.S. Defense Department. Women still can't serve in the Army's infantry, Ranger, or field artillery battalions, nor can they join any Special Operations unit. But they are flying bomber planes and attack helicopters, and they're much closer to the frontlines in this war than they were in the First Gulf War in 1991.

Fifteen percent of the Americans on active duty today are women, up from less than two percent at the close of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. And that's a source of concern for some people such as Charlotte Hayes, an editor for the Independent Women's Forum.

"It just is horrible for the military," she said. "Women are not as strong as men. Who wants to lose a battle because some of the soldiers aren't as strong as they could be? And another thing [...], maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I expect men to protect women. And there is a concern that when a woman soldier gets in trouble, a man is going to lose his life trying to protect her."

"That argument has been raised about women in the military… well, for the whole time that I was serving," said Captain Lory Manning. "Male police and male firefighters see women wounded in traffic accidents and terrorist activities all the time, and they deal with it. Nobody likes to see anybody wounded. But we get on, and we deal with it."

For Lory Manning, it's a mistake to assume that because women aren't as physically strong as men, they therefore aren't strong enough to function in combat. It's true that many military academies, including West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy, do have slightly different physical requirements for men and women, particularly when it comes to upper body strength. But Lory Manning insists women have both the physical and the emotional resolve to serve, and she notes that Shoshawna Johnson wasn't necessarily any more scared than her male colleagues when they were all questioned on Iraqi television. Captain Manning says Specialist Johnson was just more willing and able to express her fear. But Charlotte Hayes of the Independent Women's Forum thinks it's more than that.

"Look, she does have in a way some things to fear that the men don't have to fear," she said. "They can all fear being killed. She's likely the only one that has to fear a particular kind of brutality. A woman is just simply going to be more of a target for sexual assault by soldiers. And if you say otherwise, you're wrong."

Those who support the idea of women in combat insist men are just as vulnerable to sexual assault as women. But the fact remains that the only American POW from the Gulf war to report having been raped was a woman. Lory Manning says sexual assault is one of the many risks military women are aware of, and are willing to take, in an effort to serve their country. She points out that the United States simply can't afford to ignore these women who wish to serve. "Unless we want to draft men, we have to take women," she said. "We have to have an all-volunteer service or go back to the draft. That's the trade-off."

The last time the United States government conducted a military draft was in the early 1970s, during the Vietnam war. Like the conflict itself, the draft was widely unpopular. Many believed it discriminated against men who were too poor to go to college and qualify for a student deferment. If a draft were to be implemented today, there'd be no more student deferments. But President Bush has indicated he has no intention of drafting anyone at this point, and Lory Manning says he has that freedom, thanks to the 200,000 American women now on active duty.