Women have equal opportunity to serve in military -- and to sacrifice their lives

Some residents fled to the beaches for the holiday weekend, while others participated in parades. More than 250,000 flags were placed on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
By Robert McCartney
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day is difficult for the family of any fallen soldier. It can be even harder for those left behind when the person killed by hostile action was female.

"I don't feel that women should be in combat. I don't care what other countries do," Vicki Perez said of her late daughter, Army 2nd Lt. Emily J.T. Perez.

A roadside bomb killed the lively, promising graduate of Oxon Hill High School and West Point during a combat patrol in southern Iraq in 2006. She was 23.

"My thoughts are she shouldn't have been there. She shouldn't have been in harm's way," the mother said in an interview.

However, Perez also said she respected her daughter's choices and praised her selflessness. She recalled how her daughter persuaded a higher-ranking officer to let her lead the risky convoy on the day she died because she felt responsible for her platoon's safety.

"I know she wouldn't have had it any other way. If she had lost a troop, that would have been more devastating to her than losing her own life," said Perez, who lives in Prince George's County. "We always told Emily that whatever she decided to do, we'd support her."

Disapproving, proud or some mix of the two, Americans are increasingly having to deal with the reality that equal opportunity for women means equal opportunity to make the ultimate sacrifice for one's country.

The nation's daughters are dying under enemy fire to a far greater degree than in the past. Eighty U.S. servicewomen have died from hostile action in Iraq and Afghanistan so far, compared with 16 in World War II and only one in Vietnam. The current conflicts are the first in U.S. history where such casualties outnumber deaths from other causes.

The reason is simple. Female soldiers, sailors and Marines have undertaken numerous wartime tasks that expose them to violence as never before.

In previous conflicts through Vietnam, women were likely to serve as nurses or administrators. Now, though still officially barred from direct combat, they are flying fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships, clearing explosive devices from roads and manning machine guns on convoys.

"For years, we restricted women because we couldn't bear to see them coming home in body bags. We've learned that, yes, it is hard to see women lose their lives, but it's hard to have our sons do the same," said Marilla Cushman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is director of public relations and development for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the gates of Arlington National Cemetery.

I support the change as an advance for women's rights. Also, in a society in which only a fraction of the population serves in the military, the all-volunteer force needs all the talented people it can get, regardless of their sex. About 230,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. At any one time, women make up about 11 percent of forces on the ground.

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