For Female GIs, Combat Is a Fact

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

PFC Laura Springer, 20, a medic from Odessa, Texas, is among the women who drives the Army's Stryker armored combat vehicle in Iraq.
PFC Laura Springer, 20, a medic from Odessa, Texas, is among the women who drives the Army's Stryker armored combat vehicle in Iraq.(Ann Scott Tyson - The Washington Post)
MOSUL, Iraq -- Jennifer Guay went to war to be a grunt. And the 170-pound former bartender from Leeds, Maine, with cropped red hair and a penchant for the bench press, has come pretty close.

It was mid-February and Guay, 26, an Army specialist who was the first woman to be assigned as an infantry combat medic, was spending 10 hours a day on missions with the 82nd Airborne Division, dodging rockets and grenades in the crowded streets of Mosul.

"Break-break-break: U.S. soldier down!" a hard-edged voice came over the radio. A gun battle had just broken out.

In less than five minutes, Guay was at the scene. She dashed to Sgt. Christopher Pusateri, 21, who was lying on the ground, a bullet through his jaw. "I was in charge of this man's life," she recalled. Pusateri had "a massive trauma injury, and I had to get him off the middle of the street."

Day after day, Guay has faced situations that would test the steel of any soldier. And female soldiers like her -- as well as Army officers who support them -- are seizing opportunities amid Iraq's indiscriminate violence to push back the barriers against women in combat. As American women in uniform patrol bomb-ridden highways, stand duty at checkpoints shouldering M-16s and raid houses in insurgent-contested towns, many have come to believe this 360-degree war has rendered obsolete a decade-old Pentagon policy barring them from serving with ground combat battalions.

"The Army has to understand the regulation that says women can't be placed in direct fire situations is archaic and not attainable," said Lt. Col. Cheri Provancha, commander of a Stryker Brigade support battalion in Mosul, who decided to bend Army rules and allow Guay to serve as a medic for an infantry company of the 82nd Airborne. Under a 1994 policy, women are excluded from units at the level of battalion and below that engage in direct ground combat.

"This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it," Provancha, a 21-year Army veteran from San Diego, said from her base in what soldiers call Mosul's "mortar alley." "We are embedded with the enemy."

Dozens of soldiers interviewed across Iraq -- male and female, from lower enlisted ranks to senior officers -- voiced frustration over restrictions on women mandated in Washington that they say make no sense in the war they are fighting. All said the policy should be changed to allow, at a minimum, mixed-sex support units to be assigned to combat battalions. Many favored a far more radical step: letting qualified women join the infantry.

But Congress is moving in the opposite direction. A House subcommittee, seeking to keep women out of combat, passed a measure this week that would bar women from thousands of Army positions now open to them. In Iraq, female soldiers immediately denounced the vote.

"I refuse to have my right as a soldier taken from me because of my gender," Guay wrote in an e-mail. "It is my right to defend my country. . . . I am well aware of the danger. . . . Let me (us) do our job."

For many inside Army camps, the disconnect between Washington officialdom and the reality that female troops confront in Iraq was epitomized by President Bush's Jan. 11 declaration of "No women in combat."

"That's an oxymoron!" said Sgt. Neva D. Trice, who leads a female Army search team that guards the gates of Baghdad's Green Zone, where many U.S. and Iraqi government facilities are located. "If he said no women in combat, then why are there women here in Iraq?"

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