American service women now account for more than 10 percent of the total U.S. military force deployed in Iraq, and their numbers continue to grow. Women have played a role in the military since the American colonies fought their war for independence from Britain, more than two hundred years ago. Amy Nathan looks back on that long history in a new book for younger readers called Count on Us: American Women in the Military.
Count on Us features a picture of Colonel Christine Knighton in flight gear, sitting at the controls of an army helicopter. Colonel Knighton was one of the first African American women to be trained as a military pilot. She was also the first female commander of her Black Hawk helicopter company in Somalia, where she came under nightly mortar fire after a peacekeeping mission turned violent. She says the U.S. Army has changed a lot since she entered an officer training program more than two decades ago.
"When I came in you rarely saw women in aviation," she said. "Now of course women in aviation, including combat aviation, aren't that rare anymore. I've been in units where I was the only female officer. And of course 24 years later, it's almost as if it's not the same army."
How such changes came about is the subject of Amy Nathan's new book. She started writing Count on Us after a visit to the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C.
"I was really amazed at the exhibits I saw there about so many women who have been participating in defense of the nation and defense of freedom since the very beginning of the nation's history, since the Revolutionary War," said Ms. Nathan. "And all these women volunteered up until the present day. All these women volunteered. There's never been a draft of women. For many years through the end of the Vietnam Era there was a draft, so that many of the men who served had to serve, but in all these conflicts women saw there was a job that needed doing and they wanted to help."
They helped out even when they were officially barred from military service, as they were during the Revolutionary War. Amy Nathan says thousands of women traveled with Continental Army troops, cooking, carrying water and doing other support work. Some even disguised themselves as men and took part in the fighting. Deborah Samson was among the most celebrated.
"She decided she wanted to go off and have an adventure and help out the cause of freedom and perhaps earn some money," she said. "And she managed to serve for quite a while without being detected, because in those days there was no medical examination when you signed up. The only way someone really could be discovered at that time was if they became so seriously ill that a doctor would examine them. And that's what happened to her."
Deborah Samson was given an honorable discharge and sent home when her secret was discovered. But a century later, some 400 more women posed as men to fight in the Civil War, on both sides of the conflict. Thousands more served as Civil War nurses. And a northern doctor named Mary Walker became the only American woman to earn the nation's highest award for valor in war.
"She was a great advocate of the wearing of bloomers, these pants that staunch feminists would wear," Ms. Nathan said. "And she was actually captured by Confederate troops and kept as a prisoner of war in Richmond. And it's reported that the commander of the prison said he would let her go if only she'd wear women's clothes, but she refused. And then after the war she was awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1917 they changed the rules and said only people who had been in combat could win it, and told her to give back her award, but she refused."
It wasn't till the 1970s that the U.S. Congress finally reaffirmed Mary Walker's right to a Medal of Honor. By that time, new opportunities had opened up to women wanting to serve. They were allowed to enlist in the military for the first time in World War I, when they served as Navy office workers so more men could go fight. During World War II, the military created special women's corps that allowed them to become pilots, code-breakers, technicians and mechanics. While they were still barred from combat, more than 400 women lost their lives. Dorothy Steinbis Davis recalls what it was like to be an Army nurse on the European front. "We were very close to the front lines, and our hospital was bombed several times," she said. "Often we would work 24 hours a day, and then when we had to move, which was at least every three or days, as the battle lines changed, we would travel at night. So there were many times when we went several days without much rest."
Their outstanding performance in World War II, combined with the impact of the women's movement a few decades later, opened more doors to American women in the military. Over the past half century, they've won the right to serve in peacetime, to be soldiers and have children, to fly combat planes and serve on combat ships. But women still face challenges to prove themselves in the armed forces.
"The expectation for a woman is normally that you have to do the job better and harder and smarter than your male peer-to be the best," said Lieutenant Colonel Anita Dixon, a battalion commander currently stationed in Alaska.
As a single mother, Colonel Dixon also struggles to balance her military career with family needs. Her daughter was six years old when Lieutenant Colonel Dixon went on an extended assignment to Bosnia.
"She went to my mother in Virginia and that was for eight months, and we e-mailed all the time and wrote letters and she sent me care packages, but it was tough coming back to visit and then leaving again," she recalled.
Military women are also exposed to new dangers. They're still technically barred from front-line combat, but Amy Nathan says that in conflicts like the Iraq War, there really is no front line.
"Even women performing non-combat functions find themselves totally in harm's way and in the middle of combat. It's a new kind of warfare where it isn't possible to say we'll keep them out of combat because any area you are in Iraq they could come under attack."
Amy Nathan says American women have chosen to serve in the military for a range of reasons over the yearsto be close to their husbands, to travel or to find new career opportunities. But most served out of a sense of patriotism. She hopes her book Count on Us, will remind readers that ordinary women can make a huge contribution to their country, and that they've sacrificed a lot to contribute.