By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, February 24, 2008
THE SCOWLING MAN DECLARED IT LIKE AN ORDER: "YOU DON'T FLY THIS."
He was in his 40s, a civilian. With his knitted brow and jutting jaw, Marine Capt. Katie Horner recalls, the man seemed half perplexed, half ticked off. About what, exactly, Horner wasn't sure at first. Looking back on it now a few years later, she remembers he was so insistent that passersby began to glance at him. The woman with him was tugging his arm.
Horner was a first lieutenant at the time, baking in the sun at an air show next to one of the Marine Corps' light attack helicopters, both she and the AH-1 Super Cobra on public display. The 29-year-old Texan is Nordic pale, with a small straight nose and a deadpan mouth. In her dark sunglasses, green flight suit and black steel-toed boots, her long, blond hair in a regulation knot at the nape of her neck, Horner is all about the mission. Her mission that day: Stand in front of the Cobra, talk to the public.
Sometimes people would ask about the helicopter. Both the Cobra and its slower, plumper cousin, the Huey, are relatively small helicopters that have seen combat since Vietnam and are used to attack targets on the ground. But while the Huey can also carry up to a dozen troops into an assault or a half-dozen wounded out of one, a lean-bodied Cobra can accommodate only two people and one purpose: to attack.
When Horner is strapped into the Cobra's front seat, merging herself with the helicopter, she has her hand on the controls of a three-barrel 20 mm turreted cannon that juts like a stinger from the aircraft's nose. Beneath two stubby wings just aft of the cockpit, she can carry rockets or missiles like armfuls of spears. During her two tours in Iraq, if Marines on the ground were in trouble, she could rush to their rescue at up to 218 mph, then spin around in a hover, bring herself to bear on the enemy and unleash enough firepower to blast through tanks and bunkers and disintegrate human flesh. She had the power to kill, and she used it.
At the air show, sometimes people would also inquire about the Cobra's pilots, as in, "Where are the pilots?" To which Horner would reply, "The pilot's right here." This, she says, is what set off the scowling man.
"You don't fly this," Horner remembers him insisting.
"Yes," she said, "I fly it."
"No, you don't."
"Uh, yes. I do," she said.
"But you just transport it." His tone dared her to contradict him.
"Yes," she agreed. "I fly it wherever it goes."
The man yelled, "But you can't fly this!"
He yelled some more. "It has guns!"
Finally, he found the words to yell what it was that was making him so confused and angry: "You're a woman flying an attack helicopter!"
The scowling man is not alone in objecting to the very idea of a woman operating a machine designed to kill in combat. Women were banned from combat aircraft and combatant ships until the mid-1990s. They're still banned from units where direct ground combat is the primary mission, such as infantry, tanks and artillery. At a Senate hearing in 1991, a former commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Barrow, exclaimed that because combat entails killing, "Women can't do it!"
Barrow went on to say: "I may be old-fashioned, but I think the very nature of women disqualifies them from doing it. Women give life. Sustain life. Nurture life. They don't take it."
But in today's military, they are taking it. True, women aren't assigned to the units that are launching the ground offensives. Nevertheless, in the course of serving in hostile territory where they have to defend themselves and others, they have begun to participate in the military's central mission: to break the will of the enemy by killing him or convincing him that he will be killed.
"The first time I saw a woman soldier in a maternity military uniform -- the warrior versus the giver of life -- that was visually jarring to me," acknowledges Mady Wechsler Segal, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and associate director of the school's Center for Research on Military Organization. "That was in 1979. But recently, when I told that story to my students, they looked at me like I was from outer space."
Segal is barely old enough to be her students' grandmother, which means that in less than two generations, perceptions about a woman's place in the military have begun to change. When the 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed in Nasiriyah during the first days of the Iraq war, initial news reports seized on a Pentagon claim that Pfc. Jessica Lynch had fought the attackers like a videogame superheroine. While the story later proved to be false, nowadays many Americans appear to have little trouble believing that a young woman who looks like your favorite babysitter is capable of putting up a ferociously lethal defense.
The truth is, more and more military women are fighting and killing the enemy. As they do, they're battling their way into unfamiliar territory. Because, when it comes to women and killing, very little is known about the consequences for the military, for our society or even for the women themselves.
THE COBRA THUNDERED OVER IRAQ'S ANBAR PROVINCE LAST WINTER, HORNER IN THE FRONT SEAT, CAPT. ROGER HOLLIDAY IN BACK. A Huey flew off to the side in the clear blue desert sky north of Al-Asad Air Base. The two helicopter crews were conducting visual reconnaissance for a group of Marines on a mission down on the ground.
As always, Horner's M-4 rifle was shoved between the right side of her seat and the plexiglass canopy. Her 9mm pistol was stashed in her escape-and-evasion bag, which she stuffed into a crack beside the console. A Cobra's cockpit is a tight squeeze. On the ground, she wore the pistol in a shoulder holster. Her father taught her to shoot when she was growing up in Texas. "Never point a weapon at something you don't intend to kill," he told her. Her father and brother shot doves. Horner shot skeet. She had a problem with hunting something she wasn't going to eat and didn't have any other reason to kill.
Horner recalls that a call came in over the radio: Friendlies on patrol to the south were taking fire. Friendlies could be Americans, coalition forces, Iraqi soldiers. Horner's Cobra and the Huey diverted south. Where exactly they were headed wasn't entirely clear; all they had was a general location.
Horner listened to Holliday talking over the radio with one of the friendlies in the small patrol that was under attack. The man had to shout to be heard over the heavy machine gun fire. Horner scribbled down the data he was shouting, while Holliday piloted the helicopter. She searched through her maps, made sure her targeting laser was ready to use, her Hellfire missiles coded.
The desert unreeled below, tawny and creamy and streaked with brown. The Cobra and Huey skimmed over sand dunes and wadis, groves of date palms and orange trees. They found the patrol hunkered down in dusty vegetation in a rural area along a river.
To reduce the risk of taking out friendly troops or innocent bystanders in the fog of war, strict rules dictate when pilots may and may not shoot. Especially in a congested area, the targeting process is laborious and exact. This was different. This was out in the empty countryside. The shots were coming from the river's other bank, the patrol reported, and there were no friendlies on that side. Controlling close air support was not the regular job of the man shouting into the radio below, so he just used landmarks to talk them onto the target: a palm grove, a blue tractor. From behind that tractor among the palms, someone was shooting at the patrol, pinning it down.
The Cobra started its run. Holliday was at the controls. The horizon tilted as he curved in toward the grove, lining it up so Horner could fire straight at the tractor with the 20mm gun in the Cobra's nose. The gun's turret was in front of her knees, the belt of ammunition in a case beneath her backside.
Neither Horner nor Holliday remembers feeling nervous, just pumped up on adrenaline. There was nothing spectacular about what they were doing above the palm grove that day. This was an ordinary, workaday application of lethal force. They'd practiced it so many times that for Horner -- her left hand on the action bar and the trigger, her right hand on the side hand control, her eyes searching for the target and any other possible threats through the window, then peering into the telescopic sighting unit's cross hairs, up to the projected multifunctional display, back to the cross hairs -- it was all muscle memory. She held down the trigger in five-second bursts, and the gun's familiar, deep bass stutter chattered like a massive sewing machine, stitching, stitching, stitching through the roar of the engines before Holliday peeled off.
The Huey curved in behind them. A door gunner fired one of the Huey's 50-caliber machine guns into the tractor, covering Holliday and Horner while Holliday brought the Cobra around for a second run. The helicopter roared through the curve, then Horner caught a glimpse of the tracers from the Huey's big gun before the Huey in turn broke off to make way for the Cobra. The grove and the blue tractor glided once more into Horner's cross hairs.
Twenty-millimeter rounds have the capability to zip through metal, blast through engine blocks, rip off arms, blow apart heads. By the time Horner and the Huey's door gunner finished firing on their second runs, no more shots were coming from behind the tractor. Whoever had been shooting from back there was undoubtedly dead.
AT THE MOMENT THE ENEMY IS KILLED, IF THE HAND ON THE TRIGGER BELONGS TO A WOMAN INSTEAD OF A MAN, DOES IT MATTER? Militarily, sociologically, personally -- does it make any difference?
While researchers have studied killing as it relates to men, there's very little data and no good research on women and killing in combat. The public discussion has been just as limited. What public debate there is about women, combat and military readiness focuses almost exclusively on the more general issue of whether or not women should participate in direct ground combat. There, brawn is as important as brains.
Opponents and supporters argue over whether women can achieve enough upper body strength to haul heavy weapons or carry wounded buddies, or whether greater flexibility and smaller size gives women an advantage inside cramped tanks and tunnels. Opponents worry that either sexual tension or the male instinct to protect females will undermine a unit's ability to pull together and fight effectively. But supporters worry that sparing women the hard, dirty work of combat is just as bad for morale because it incites resentment among the men. Such pros and cons dominate the rare moments when the issue gets public attention, overlooking the potential impact of sending women off to kill.
Zero in on the act of taking a life, and the pros and cons change. Strength becomes largely irrelevant at the moment of killing in modern warfare. With today's weaponry, if you can move your finger, you can pull a trigger. So if there's anything about women that makes them less effective at killing, it may be more psychological than physical.
Take empathy. In many studies published by American Psychological Association journals, women do show signs of being more empathetic; whether they're born or made this way isn't clear. So far, no studies have examined whether empathy undermines military readiness. But Wayne State University law professor and military observer Kingsley Browne wrote in a Buffalo Law Review article, "If it is true -- as so many feminists argue and the psychological data seem to support -- that women exhibit greater compassion, sensitivity and empathy than men, then women may be more reluctant than men to kill the enemy."
But is empathy always bad? The Pentagon doesn't think so. Its new counterinsurgency manual stresses, "Genuine compassion and empathy for the populace provides an effective weapon against insurgents," adding, "Effective leaders are as skilled at limiting lethal force as they are in concentrating it. Indeed, they must learn that nonlethal solutions may often be preferable."
But it's not certain that military women are more empathetic. Anecdotal evidence from men who have fought alongside women hints that what's true for women generally may not be as true for women who join the military. As Sgt. Sam Alyassini, a Huey door gunner in Horner's squadron, puts it: "A lot of these female pilots have more balls than the male pilots. I don't know if they have something to prove or if they're just very confident in their skills, which are excellent."
In the military, that attitude about women is typical. While some civilians continue to argue over whether women are strong enough for combat, most soldiers have already concluded that women do have the physical strength, stamina and mental toughness to be effective, according to surveys by the U.S. Army Research Institute. Only about 14 percent of male and female soldiers say they'd change their career plans if women were to start fighting alongside men in direct ground combat. In a little more than a decade, military attitudes have done an about-face.
The attitude adjustment has been driven in part by changes in society. "We're the generation that grew up with our mothers working," says Lt. Col. Lawrence Killmeier, Horner's commanding officer in Iraq. His generation is used to working with women. "I still have those traditional thoughts -- men want to protect women. And some old-school types may have a problem. But today, most Marines are open and accepting of it."
The change in attitude is also driven by necessity. Since the male draft ended in 1973, fewer and fewer men have volunteered to serve. "The reason the all-volunteer force has worked is due to racial integration and women. They volunteered in large numbers," says retired Navy Capt. Barbara Brehm, now with the military women's advocacy group Alliance for National Defense.
Indeed, during the draft era, women made up about 2 percent of the 12 million people serving by the end of World War II and less than 1 percent in Vietnam, most of them nurses. In contrast, the all-volunteer force is now 15 percent female, with women serving in nine out of 10 military occupational specialties. Today's military can't go to war without women. The result: As the Army struggles to keep enough boots on the ground in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, a recent Rand Corp. study confirms that it has cut corners on its own strict policy of steering women clear of units that engage in direct ground combat.
In 2005, when Republicans in Congress proposed legislation that would have forced the Army to remove women from many of the jobs they'd been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the proposal ran into such fierce opposition from the Pentagon that it was abandoned. Even the retired general who heads the Association of the United States Army weighed in, writing to the House Armed Services Committee: "To impose this restriction on commanders as they prepare for deployment would be detrimental to their units that have trained and readied together."
If Army leaders have a high opinion of their female troops, it appears to be based on something other than empirical evidence. "I'm not aware of any formal study the Army is doing concerning female performance in combat," reports Army spokeswoman Maj. Anne Edgecomb in an e-mail. "And I would be surprised if there actually was a study. We see soldiers as soldiers, and we all train to the same standard required of our duty specialty. If you can achieve the standard to perform your duty, it doesn't matter what your gender is. We all have strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the fight, regardless of our gender."
So, from the military's perspective, it seems to make little difference who kills the enemy, male or female. But does it make a difference to society?
"We see our female soldiers with helmets and gear, and we're very proud of them. But the social costs are high," argues Elaine Donnelly, head of the independent Center for Military Readiness, which focuses on military personnel policy issues. "If we as a nation say it's okay to expose women to direct combat violence, it's a cultural shift, and not in the right direction."
On this issue, Donnelly is allied both with conservatives such as political activist Phyllis Schlafly on the far right and radical feminists on the far left. According to Mady Segal, the military sociologist, radical feminists contend that the many changes in gender roles since the '60s have been mostly one-way: Women have become more like traditional, aggressive men, but men haven't become much more nurturing. "The radical feminist view," says Segal, "is that women shouldn't be in the military, that we need to preserve some portion of humanity who don't become takers of life."
Before all those changes in the '60s, a woman's biological role as a mother generally kept her off the killing fields. In her book, Women in the Line of Fire, feminist military affairs writer Erin Solaro summarizes the historical research this way: "Women who, because of their sex, risked their lives and health bearing children should not also have to bear the burden of defending those children when men were available."
In the last half-century, however, advances in medicine have reduced the risk of maternal death, points out Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and director of the Women in the Military project at the Women's Research and Education Institute, a Washington area think tank. But Manning believes that's not the main reason women are now wearing so many more military uniforms.
"The main thing is birth control," she asserts. "From the mid-'60s on, women could control their fertility." Since that time, the military has opened most of its occupational specialties to women, ranging from 92 percent of jobs in the Army and Marine Corps to 100 percent of Coast Guard jobs.
"It's a worldwide phenomenon that has exploded over the last 15 years," says Manning. From India to Turkey, women are joining the military. In a groundbreaking study more than 10 years ago, Segal predicted that the more egalitarian a society is, the more its women will participate in the military. The prediction has proved accurate. French, German, Danish and Canadian women have even begun serving in their direct ground combat forces -- infantry, tanks, artillery.
But, observes Manning, "the image of the armed, trained killer female who goes to war makes some uneasy."
Donnelly, the military personnel expert, calls that image the Amazon myth. "Women killing the enemy on the same basis as men has consequences," she says. "Sending mothers to war is a greater problem because of the children. I don't think the needs of children have changed one bit. Anyone can drive a truck in the desert. A child needs his mother."
Calculating the social costs of sending women off to kill may depend on how America decides to answer the question of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. After watching the debate for more than 30 years, Segal concludes, "The arguments on both sides really do derive from attitudes about gender differences and appropriate roles for men and women, as opposed to any real concern about the impact of having women [in combat]."
Based on her research, Segal believes that society pays the same price regardless of who it sends to do the killing. If that's true, the final cost will depend -- just as it always has with men -- on how the act of killing affects each woman when she comes home.
ON MARCH 20, 2005, TWO WOMEN AND EIGHT MEN IN A MILITARY POLICE SQUAD FROM THE KENTUCKY NATIONAL GUARD WERE ON PATROL NEAR BAGHDAD. On that day, a passing convoy of tractor-trailers was ambushed by 50 men armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades -- and handcuffs. They intended to take hostages.
The MPs rushed their three Humvees into the kill zone between the convoy and its attackers. The MPs were outnumbered six to one. Using her M-4 rifle, grenades and M-203 rounds, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester killed at least three enemy fighters and followed her squad leader into a trench to clear out the remaining attackers, who had the squad pinned down. The other female MP, Spec. Ashley Pullen, laid down suppressing fire, then ran through a hail of bullets to help a fellow soldier who had been shot, covering his body with her own.
Together, the squad killed 27 insurgents. Eight of the MPs earned awards, including a Bronze Star for Pullen and, for Hester, a Silver Star, one of the military's highest honors. That made her the first woman to earn a Silver Star since World War II, and the first ever to earn one for close combat.
A year later, at an event honoring the squad, Hester told reporters: "I think about March 20 at least a couple times a day, every day, and I probably will for the rest of my life. It's taken its toll. Every night I'm lucky if I don't see the picture of it in my mind before I go to sleep, and then, even if I don't, I'm dreaming about what we did."
Hester no longer gives interviews. She's tired of talking about it. So are most of the men in the squad.
Ashley Pullen isn't. She's 5-foot-2 and 23, with long brown hair, a smattering of freckles across her upturned nose and a lot of anger to talk through. She's been diagnosed as fully disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Pullen joined the National Guard at age 17 to pay for college and to help others. She chose the military police because she figured it was the closest a woman could get to the front lines, saying, "I like to be out doing things, and MP was the most aggressive I could do."
But in Iraq, the aggression would just build up inside her with no way to let it out. "We would get shots popped off at us as we were driving by," she recalls. Most of the time her unit couldn't shoot back. "We had to make sure if we could see them. You can't just spray bullets into a house."
In addition to the daily potshots and the ambush that earned Pullen the Bronze Star, she went through three other firefights and survived three roadside bombs. During one blast, she watched a bomb-driven rock hurtle toward her face and slam through the first two layers of her armored Humvee's thick window before stopping. The damage to the rest of the Humvee would take six months to repair.
Like many combat veterans, Pullen does not know if she actually killed anyone all those times she fired her weapon in Iraq. Despite the official accounting, even Hester insists she's not sure who killed whom that day in 2005. Battlefields are a whirlwind of confusion. Combat historian Army Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall wrote of the typical World War II soldier: "He sees nothing. There is nothing to be seen. The fire comes out of nowhere. He knows that it is fire because the sounds are unmistakable. But that is all he knows for certain." In interviews, many soldiers who report firing their weapons more times than they can count nonetheless can't say for sure they ever hit anything.
From a mental health perspective, you don't have to kill anyone to wind up suffering a psychological injury. Researchers have found that what matters more is the number of times a soldier believed he and his fellow soldiers were going to die. Military mental health surveys don't just ask returning soldiers if they killed anyone; they're quizzed on whether they were shot at, handled dead bodies or knew someone who was killed.
Being under attack is the opposite of killing, but it can take a similar toll. Immediately after the explosion that destroyed her Humvee, Pullen remembers surging with rage inside. On the outside, though, she was calm. She stayed calm until she reached the gate of the base. There, safely surrounded by tanks and another MP squad, the anger erupted, and she burst into tears. "It startled a couple people in the squad," she says. "I had to go have me a talk with a chaplain."
Other than that, she didn't do much talking while she was in Iraq. She just stayed angry, she says, an unfocused, unending fury. She had deployed with a unit she didn't know, and once in Iraq she'd been transferred to yet another unit of strangers to fill a gap. Then the two guys she grew closest to were wounded in the convoy ambush and never came back. She withdrew into herself.
Now that she's home from the war zone, Pullen still doesn't talk to anyone in the squad if she doesn't have to. "It stresses me out," she says, "makes me regress -- that Monday morning feeling that you don't want to go back to work, times 50." One other guy in the squad has called her to ask how she got her disability rating. "I know a lot of people that are struggling, but won't come out and be labeled crazy."
Pullen's experience mirrors that of male veterans with PTSD. She says she wrestles with "a huge, flaming ball of anger." She picks fights, can't concentrate, can't hold down a job. She doesn't go out much. She's struggling to raise an infant son. When she's silent in the morning, her husband knows it's probably not going to be a good day.
THE STEREOTYPE IS THAT WOMEN HAVE A STRONGER RESISTANCE TO KILLING THAN MEN. But research has repeatedly demonstrated that most men aren't natural-born killers, either, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and now a psychologist who specializes in the psychology of killing. In his book On Killing, Grossman demonstrates through historical records and behavioral studies that when people are threatened the way they are in combat, most either freeze and submit, or run, or attempt to scare off the threat by posturing -- making themselves seem as big, noisy and dangerous as possible. The pattern is so consistent across cultures that Grossman and others have concluded that normal human beings have a strong natural resistance to killing other human beings, even in war.
Grossman calculates that the Civil War armies, which lined up 30 yards apart and blasted away at each other with muzzle loaders, should have killed hundreds of men every minute. But the actual per-minute average was one or two. Grossman's explanation: "When faced with a living, breathing target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy's heads."
The same behavior was recorded during World War II by Marshall. His battlefield study found that most American soldiers, even when they were being fired upon, even when their lives and their buddies' lives were in danger, didn't fire back. Among the 15 to 20 percent who did return fire, most aimed over the enemy's heads -- just trying to make enough noise to scare off the threat. But more than 20 years later in Vietnam, researchers discovered that 90 to 95 percent of American soldiers were firing back -- and more frequently aiming at the enemy.
What changed? Their training. After Marshall's study, the U.S. military stopped simply teaching soldiers to shoot; it began conditioning them to kill. For instance, instead of taking aim at stationary bull's-eye targets, trainees learned to react to man-shaped targets that popped up without warning.
Grossman has found that soldiers who kill go through a series of emotional stages similar to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous stages of grief. Beforehand, they may worry that they won't be able to kill, that they'll let down their buddies. When killing in combat, they respond automatically, without thinking, the way they were trained. Afterward, they typically feel exhilarated -- because they're still alive, because they succeeded at using their training or accomplished the mission. While that's often followed by remorse and even nausea, most move on through a process of rationalization and acceptance. But sometimes that process fails. As a result, in certain circumstances, killing is linked to major depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Many of these circumstances are described by Jonathan Shay, Veterans Affairs psychiatrist, former chair of ethics policy for the Army and the author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, which is based on his clinical experience with male Vietnam veterans diagnosed with chronic, severe PTSD. Shay found that the circumstances that can lead to psychological injury include killing that violates a soldier's sense of what's right, such as when innocent civilians are among the dead, or being part of a unit that hasn't bonded, which provides no opportunity to process the violent episode -- such as what happened to Pullen.
Shay offers no data on whether being a woman makes killing-related trauma worse, but, within the general civilian population, women are more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD than men. This pattern was shown in a review of hundreds of studies published in the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin. Studies, including the 1995 National Comorbidity Survey, funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, found that women were twice as likely as men to report PTSD at some point in their lives -- 10 percent of women compared with 5 percent of men.
In his book Co-ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn't Fight the Nation's Wars, law professor Kingsley Browne worries that women are likely to pay a heavier psychological cost for killing than men. "This cost will be borne not only by themselves but also by their children, born and unborn, as maternal depression and anxiety are very negative predictors of a child's well-being."
Among male Vietnam veterans, as many as one-third wound up suffering from major depression, anxiety and PTSD. Does the PTSD data on civilian women mean that today's female war zone veterans will suffer at an even higher rate?
In 2004, the Pentagon's second Mental Health Advisory Team, or MHAT-II, looked at rates of psychological injury in a war zone. Surprisingly, depression, anxiety and PTSD struck male and female soldiers almost equally, 13 percent of men and 12 percent of women.
One possible explanation is that since women aren't in the infantry, they're experiencing fewer firefights. However, the all-male infantry adds up to only 12 to 15 percent of the military. Plus, convoys and checkpoints in Iraq are often guarded by coed non-infantry units and are just as likely to come under attack. As a result, women, who make up 10 percent of soldiers in Iraq, have earned 5 percent of the combat action badges, awarded for actively engaging with the enemy. In addition, while "killing an enemy combatant" is listed in MHAT-II as among the most likely causes of PTSD, so is "seeing dead or seriously injured Americans," an almost daily occurrence in combat support hospitals, where more than half of Army nurses are women. In fact, 13 percent of women deployed to Iraq are in medical occupations. In any case, there's no strong indication that the higher rates of psychological distress among civilian women apply to women in the military.
"My explanation," says the Army surgeon general's psychiatry consultant, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, "is that women in a volunteer military are self-selected. They join knowing they will be exposed to hardships and combat. So they are a resilient, hardy group of people, perhaps more so than on the civilian side."
No one really knows why PTSD develops in some people and not others, according to the National Center for PTSD. However, from ancient Greece to modern-day Iraq, men who've written about combat have revealed that how much you're affected by the act of killing depends in large part on how physically close you are to the person you kill. While jet pilots and snipers who kill from a distance are generally less affected, the effect on the infantryman who kills face to face can be profound.
Helicopter pilots and door gunners who engage targets on the ground come as close to the infantryman's killing experience as it's possible to do and still be in the air.
IN IRAQ, HORNER'S COBRA PEELED OFF AFTER SHE AND THE HUEY DOOR GUNNER SILENCED THE ATTACKERS IN THE PALM GROVE. Returning to Al-Asad, the two helicopters floated to their landings, engines whining down, rotors slowing to a stop. Horner, her copilot Holliday and the men from the Huey crunched across the windswept concrete and gravel to the squadron. They felt good, energized.
"It's not because you got to kill somebody," Horner says, "but because you got implemented. I got to do something for someone. It's a strange kind of gratification."
Along with the others, Horner went through the intelligence and flight debriefs, and word spread that the two crews had shot while they were out. Other pilots and crew chiefs, male and female, drifted into the concrete ready room to talk. There among the sandbagged windows, the big, dusty, U-shaped table and the broken SMART Board, they went over what had happened, asked one another how they could improve.
The two crews were still on strip duty, waiting for the next call to go out. During shifts like this, every time the siren blared, Katie Horner and the others would run to their helicopters, lift off and thunder out over the desert. Every day, rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, would streak up at them from the ground. When that happened, a popcorn sound filled Horner's cramped cockpit -- flares automatically launching themselves to distract the RPGs from the helicopters. Horner would thunder on, responding to a troops-in-contact call, or more often escorting medevac helicopters, which lack heavy weapons to defend themselves. Horner acknowledges: "I have to shoot people if necessary. Every time you leave, that's what your mission is."
Back home, Douglas Horner worried that his daughter would get shot down. Jane Wade, a burn nurse, worried that their daughter would come home with PTSD, something she'd seen in a lot of her patients. Bill Horner would listen to his little sister's voice over the phone line from Iraq.
Katie sounded different to Bill. He didn't hear much of the fun, joking, making-friends Katie when she called from Iraq. He knew she was intense about her work, that if she made a mistake Marines could get killed. But all she'd say was, "Gotta go now, gotta go fly in an evac."
When Katie was a toddler out on the edge of the Texas plains, the future pilot's mother watched her sit on the swing and talk to the clumps of grass.
"What do you talk about?" Jane asked.
"The flowers and the birds," Katie said.
"You wouldn't think a woman who would go in the Marine Corps would be sensitive," says her father. "But she loves animals and people and hates to see any of them get hurt."
Still, Bill remembers Katie at 6, asking some older boys who were playing soccer if she could play, too. They told her girls couldn't play soccer. So, she kicked them. Then she took the ball and scored. "She was not the most peaceful of children," Bill says.
"She's always been the kind of kid who likes to do things other people don't," Douglas concedes. "It didn't hurt if it was something someone told her she couldn't do."
In eighth grade, Horner joined a crowd of mostly boys at a Naval Academy presentation for local high school students. She had become interested in the military, but, in case that didn't work out, she researched other ways to fund a college education. She was an outstanding student, and she interviewed for a scholarship from a local men's service organization. "She came away with the impression they wanted to send a boy," her mother recalls. The men did not give her a scholarship.
Dartmouth, however, did. Davidson, Wellesley and Boston University also wanted her. Then she won an appointment to the Naval Academy, a full-ride scholarship. She sat down and compared the military pension plan to the earning capability of a Dartmouth grad. Based on the math, she made her decision. She graduated from Dartmouth in 2000 with a degree in economics, moved to New York City and went to work as an analyst in mergers and acquisitions.
A year and a half later, Horner was vacationing in Egypt with her mother and brother. She walked into their Cairo hotel on a September afternoon, glanced into a little room off the lobby and noticed a tiny TV. On the staticky screen, black smoke billowed from one of the World Trade Center towers.
She slammed into Bill's room, furious. "Turn on the [expletive] TV."
As the Twin Towers came down, Bill watched helplessly, grateful at least that Katie was out of harm's way instead of back in New York.
Meanwhile, his sister seethed. He says she told him: "I need to be part of doing something about this. I need to look into joining the military again."
A month after she got back from Egypt, Horner contacted the Marines. That December, she started working out at a Manhattan gym. The following April, she quit her job. By June, she was low-crawling through the mud in Quantico at the Marine Corps' Officer Candidate School.
Despite the emotional motivation of September 11, Horner's decision to join the Marines was as calculated as her earlier decision to go to Dartmouth. Like Pullen, she wanted to be part of the military's mission to fight and defend. The policy excluding women from direct ground combat meant she couldn't be "that lance corporal with an M-16 going door to door on the ground," she says. "The closest I could get to that was in the air." Before choosing the Marines, Horner had gotten back in touch with the Navy, told them she wanted to fly. The Navy wouldn't promise her a pilot's slot. The Marines did.
Less than a decade earlier, they probably wouldn't have. The Marine Corps has been the slowest of the services to incorporate women into its ranks. Female Marines didn't even begin receiving weapons training until 1985. While Navy women started flying in 1973, it was
another 20 years before the first female Marine pilot, Sarah Deal, entered flight training. That's still news to some of
the Marines in the all-male units on the ground, according to both male and female Marines interviewed for this article.
"They're completely thrown for a loop to hear female voices," says Capt. Summer Brasington, a Huey pilot who was Horner's roommate in Iraq. "One infantry guy said to me, 'So, what do you do when they leave for war?' assuming I stay behind when the squadron deploys."
So far, only a handful of women are flying Cobras. At the time of Horner's return from Iraq, there were just two women among the more than 200 Marine pilots assigned to fly Cobras: Horner on the East Coast and Capt. Amy Roznowski on the West Coast.
They're rare because there just aren't that many women in the Marine pipeline. In addition to its late start, the Marine Corps relies on the Navy for the support services where women tend to be concentrated. Plus, of all the service branches, its mission is the most combat intensive, and on the ground that's a no-go for women. As a result, while women make up 20 percent of the Air Force, they make up only 6 percent of the Marine Corps.
When it came time for the Marine Corps to juggle its needs with Horner's wishes, she made the same fight-and-defend calculation that she had when she joined, and put in for the small, two-man Cobras. In a bigger helicopter with a crew, the pilots may fire the occasional rocket, but mostly they maneuver the aircraft into position and order the crew to shoot.
"I wanted to be able to pull the trigger and shoot back," Horner says. "With helicopters, I liked that it's closer to the ground. You can see what you're shooting at with your own eyes. It's not that I want to kill people or see people killed. I wanted to take part in helping the infantry Marine do his job. It's not easy to pull the trigger, but we're trained very well not to shoot unless it's necessary."
AFTER SEVEN MONTHS IN IRAQ, HORNER RETURNED FROM HER SECOND COMBAT TOUR.
She came back to Marine Corps Air Station New River. The air station hugs the river where it widens to embrace the ocean on the North Carolina coast. With military aircraft roaring through takeoffs and landings here day and night, the sign outside the front gate is half apology, half chest-thump: Pardon our noise, it's the sound of freedom.
Inside the gate, the slogan painted on the side of the long, narrow hangar that's home to Horner's light attack helicopter squadron, HML/A-167, is completely unapologetic: Have Guns Will Travel.
Horner heads out to a Cobra that's parked near the runway in the combat aircraft loading area. She isn't sure if she wants to do this long term. A military pilot's career includes a lot of frustrating duties that have nothing to do with flying. And it's hard to have a life. More than half of military women marry current or former military men. "Them's the pickings," Horner says dryly. Her friend Brasington, the Huey pilot, is married to a Navy pilot and thinking she'll get out. "We want a family," Brasington sighs. "With both of us deploying, it's too hard."
A sharp wind cuts across the flat open ground of the loading area. It ripples the uniforms of the four-person ground crew watching Horner and a new pilot preflight the Cobra for a practice flight. Horner finishes checking a panel under the wing, and the crew comes in to screw the cover back in place. She moves on to the transmission and the engine.
On this day, she's been home two months, but her watch is still on Iraq time. During her two tours in Iraq, these minutes spent preflighting with her helmet on were often the only time she had to herself. Her helmet muted the outside world, let her focus on the private space between her and her aircraft. She'd sing a drinking song from college:
I'm a son of a son of a son of a son of a son of a gun for beer. Like every honest fellow, I drink my whiskey clear, 'cause I'm a student of old Dartmouth and a son of a gun for beer.
This preflight routine always involved a lot of beer-mug-swinging elbow action as she moved from panel to panel, and a lot of not hitting the right notes, loudly, because with her helmet on, she couldn't hear herself. The ground crew would look at her sideways and comment that she must be in a good mood. Actually, she wasn't -- she was trying to get in a good mood, and in Iraq, this was the best way she knew to do it. Horner visited her mother in Texas not long after she got back from the Middle East. Jane Wade watched her carefully for signs of trauma. She didn't see any.
Out next to the runway at New River air station, Horner and the new pilot finish preflighting the Cobra and climb into the cockpit. The engines come to life with a deep, accelerating roar, the rotors spinning into a blur. The ground crew leans into the wall of wind blasting off the blades. From where the crew stands, the pilots are just two white helmets visible through the plexiglass canopy, twin disks slotted neatly into the helicopter's mechanical insides.
The Cobra picks up in a hover and cruises just above the ground toward the runway. A gloomy river of clouds flows steadily overhead, driven by the wind. Moving faster as it follows the runway, the gray helicopter angles upward until it's a dark speck against the leaden clouds.
In the hangar below, Horner's copilot in Iraq leans back in a chair. Holliday is 36, a former infantry grunt with an easy smile and prematurely gray hair shaved up the sides and a shock of bangs that stick straight out in front. When they first started flying together, Horner struck Holliday as being very quiet. The way he describes it, "There's always an initial feeling-out process -- what's this person's personality like, what's their background," things that Holliday believes make more of a difference than gender.
He and his wife live three blocks from Horner. They get together to barbecue out back. It's a world away from Iraq, where every time they went up they flew with the possibility that they'd be "cleared hot" and granted permission to shoot to kill.
"Katie reacted same as I did," he says, "down to business, do what we got to do and worry about it later." So, now that it's later, does he worry about it? Holliday folds his arms, a barred gate. "I don't think there's a person walking in the squadron who thinks it's cool to kill people. We remove ourselves from the emotion of it."
HOLLIDAY AND HORNER'S NEIGHBORHOOD IS OFF BASE, A CIVILIAN SUB-DIVISION FILLED WITH MILITARY. For Horner, home is a sedate little vinyl-sided house with a shiny black Infiniti sport coupe in the driveway and an old pickup in the garage.
Inside, little strips of paint samples are stuck to the walls. Since her homecoming, Horner has begun thinking about repainting. She's resumed her gourmet cooking habit, bought herself a big new TV. As soon as she walked in the door this evening, she ditched the flight suit for comfy lounging wear. Inside this house, there's almost no sign of the military, much less Iraq, just a fragment stashed on her computer's hard drive in the study. It's a digital file of a murky video of target practice, recorded by her Cobra's nose camera.
On the video: an aerial view of the Iraqi desert. A couple of abandoned hangars cruise into view, what the squadron used for target practice over there. The soundtrack plays back Horner's voice, recorded over the tinny headsets, "Roger, I'm going to go and fire," and the faint stitching of the 20mm gun. On the screen, part of the hangar blooms into smoke.
How does Horner cope with the killing? She's unwinding in front of the TV in her living room, her feet tucked beneath her on the sofa. She frowns. "I didn't have to cope with it." She sounds annoyed. "I don't even like the word cope -- it implies I had something to get over. I had nothing to get over. I feel like I reacted the same as everyone else."
She also says: "To consider the fact that you might have killed someone? Yes, that's my job. And, hopefully, I do it responsibly."
This is not a subject most combat veterans are eager to talk about, not with anyone who hasn't been there. But she tries again to explain. "I feel much more comfortable shooting a person who's going after someone than shooting a dog that's going after someone. Dogs, what do they know? People, they make a choice.
"My feeling is, they started it. They could have chosen to have gone about their day. But instead they shot at Marines."
Kristin Henderson is the author of While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.