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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Band of sisters : American Women at War in Iraq
by Kirsten Holmstedt
Published by Stackpole Books, ©2007

Reviewed by Jo Freeman

The 2003 invasion of Iraq sent the largest number of women into combat in US history.

Band of Sisters tells the stories of about a dozen of these women. They include:

  • Army Specialist Rachelle Spors, a medic who was seriously injured when the ambulance she was driving to assist wounded soldiers was blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device).

  • Staff Sergeant Tricia Jameson, riding in the passenger seat, was killed.

  • Marine Captain Amy McGrath who dropped bombs and missiles from the back seat of an F-18. "The killing aspect is hard," she said, but she does it because it’s her job.

  • Navy Petty Officer Third Class Marcia Lillie who works on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, which the author describes as "one of the most hazardous working environments in the world."

  • Marine Lance Corporal Chrissy DeCaprio, who loves to shoot the .50-caliber machine gun from the top of her Humvee.

  • Marine Captain Vernice Armour, the first African-American female pilot in the Marines, and the first black female combat pilot in any service. She flew a Cobra, the Marine’s primary attack helicopter.

  • Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Polly Montgomery who commanded a squadron of transport helicopters, taking troops and materials to and from battle zones. She had to fight for acceptance by her troops, and won.

  • Army Sergeant Angela Jarboe, who drove long-haul trucks with supplies for eight years until a van blew up as her truck as passed it on the road. The insurgents who planned and executed the action filmed the entire process and put it on the internet. A friend gave it to the wounded Jarboe when she was shipped home.

  • Army Captain Robin Brown, who led a company of 26 pilots flying Kiowa helicopters on armed reconnaissance missions. She safely landed her burning chopper after it was hit with an explosive.

Between 2003 and the 2007 publication of this book over 155,000 women were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, seventy had been killed and over 430 wounded. While this is not the first war in which women have been casualties, it set a record.

The real turning point was the1991 Gulf War which saw a big jump in the number of women exposed to battlefield risk. Subsequently, more dangerous specialties were opened up to women, including serving on combat ships and flying combat aircraft.

Currently women are 15 percent of active duty forces and are eligible for 80-90 percent of military jobs. While not allowed to serve in direct combat units, they can serve in combat support units. In today’s wars, the line between these is blurry.

Although the debate continues to rage among civilians about whether women should be in combat, the realities of the Iraq invasion have rendered that question moot in the military.
Women are in combat because there is no front line. Any and all jobs can be dangerous. Gunnery Sergeant Yolanda Mayo and Captain Kelly Frushour were in public relations but that didn’t protect them from being shot at.

Women soldiers are particularly valuable in the Middle-East, where cultural norms proscribe male-female contact. Women are needed to pat down Iraqi women and children during street stops and building searches. Marine Lance Corporal Carrie Blais reported the relief she saw on the faces of Iraqi women on seeing female Marines after a squad barged into their homes in the middle of the night, scaring everyone.

Putting death and injury aside, these are success stories of women who overcame numerous challenges. You won’t read about sexual harassment or discrimination. You will read about how the "grunts" learned to respect the female soldiers — as soldiers not as female soldiers.

The importance of this was emphasized in the Introduction by Army Captain Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs when her helicopter was shot down. She wrote that because some women before her "simply used their gender to gain advantage" her generation of women soldiers had to prove themselves to men in "leadership positions" who were "even less welcoming of female troops than previous generations."
Nonetheless Major Duckworth would rather see more women in the military, and wrote that a ban on women in combat would be "stupid and unrealistic."

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