Military Families Mourn Daughters
20 Female Service Members Have Been Killed in Iraq
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A01
EL PASO -- When Sgt. Isela Rubalcava's body arrived at the airport from Iraq, her mother wailed like a child. "I don't want to see her like this," Maria Isela Rubalcava cried out in Spanish, a priest at the scene said. "Why, Isela, why? Get up, get up! Let's go home."
By the time a funeral Mass was celebrated last week at St. Patrick's Church in nearby Canutillo, the Rev. Manny Marrufo said, Maria Rubalcava had accepted the reality that her daughter was gone, dead of shrapnel wounds she suffered when a mortar round exploded during an attack in Mosul on May 8. It was three days before her 26th birthday.
Rubalcava was one of 20 female U.S. service members to die so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom -- the highest number of U.S. military women to die in a combat operation since World War II, military historians said. The dead include Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, who was killed in an ambush in the first days of the invasion, and Pfc. Leslie D. Jackson, 18, of Richmond, who was killed Thursday when her vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. Others died in helicopter crashes, or vehicle accidents, or when guns accidentally went off, or while trying to defuse bombs.
In addition, 162 women have been wounded in Iraq, 99 of them too badly to return to duty, according to the Defense Department. And two of the most prominent faces of the war belong to Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was taken prisoner and then rescued early in the war, and Pfc. Lynndie England, who recently turned up in photographs documenting the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
For decades, Defense Department regulations kept military women away from direct action, out of fear that the American public would echo the cries of Maria Isela Rubalcava -- "I don't want to see her like this" -- when it came to women dying in combat. But when those rules changed in the mid-1990s, few people complained. And now, with more women serving in what the military calls "at-risk" jobs in Iraq, and more of them becoming casualties, the public has largely remained silent.
Women who monitor gender roles in the military are divided over what this means.
Supporters of equality between men and women in the ranks say it reflects a great leap forward for a society striving for equal rights. "There's a shift in the feeling about women," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. "People think she's doing her own thing."
"There's been a rethinking by parents," Vaught said. "They ask themselves, 'Do I value my daughter's life more than my son's life?' As a parent, I don't know how to answer that question."
As far as Phyllis Schlafly is concerned, the answer is simple. "I think it's uncivilized," said Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum. She called gender equality in the military a giant step backward.
"I think it's social experimentation, and I don't think it's going to help us win the war," she said. "They want to masculize the women and feminize the men, so that we're a gender-neutral society."
If women continue to die, said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a think tank based in Livonia, Mich., the debate will almost certainly be sharpened.
"What we're seeing now with the use of women in the military is unprecedented, but here we are," Donnelly said. She said one of her concerns is that single mothers are being killed. Piestewa, for example, left behind two children.
"We are asking these policies to be reassessed," Donnelly said.
Women's current place in the military may be traced to legal changes beginning in 1948, when Congress passed the Armed Forces Integration Act, which gave women regular and reserve status in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. At the same time, the law limited women's presence in those branches to 2 percent of the forces and stipulated that women could not serve on ships and aircraft that engaged in combat.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ramon and Maria Isela Rubalcava, center, weep upon the arrival of the remains of Sgt. Isela Rubalcava, their daughter. Isela Rubalcava was one of 20 female U.S. service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom -- the most U.S. military women to die in a combat operation since World War II.
(Linda Stelter -- El Paso Times Via AP)