Women During Wartime: Their Lives & Deaths

By Christine Cupaiuolo — September 25, 2006

Sixty-five women in the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan or Iraq since 2002. That’s the cover story of Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review section. Brief bios and photos of all the women are available here.

The perspective is their deaths — and the injuries sustained by the hundreds of women wounded at war — have not been the cause of major media attention or public scrutiny, despite the growing numbers.

“There is no shortage of guesses as to why: Americans are no longer especially shocked by the idea of a woman’s violent death. Most don’t know how many women have fallen, or under what circumstances. Photographs of body bags and coffins are rarely seen. And nobody wants to kick up a fuss and risk insulting grieving families,” writes Lizette Alvarez.

And the debate over whether the military is appropriate for women (or vice versa) takes a back seat when the United State is experiencing a shortage of troops. “As has happened many times in war, circumstances have outpaced arguments,” Alvarez writes. “They are sure to be taken up again at some point, only this time, the military will have real-life data on the performance of women in the field to supplant the hypotheticals.”

In 1994, Congress relaxed rules on women serving in the military, allowing women to serve in combat support groups close to the front line. Women are technically still not permitted to participate in ground combat forces, but they can serve as fighter pilots and on warships. In Iraq, however, when combat can be anywhere, the distinction is fuzzy.

“It’s that policy that when this war is over is going to have to change, even if we have to keep women out of the infantry per se,” Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and director for the Women In the Military project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, told the Times. “The next door to open is ground combat. That’s the last frontier. A lot of the social conservatives have powerful feelings about training mothers to kill.”

The story also addresses issues that affect women more than men, such as sexual harassment. (See also the Washington Post story on Suzanne Swift, a 22-year-old Army specialist who was sexually harassed in Iraq. Swift may face a court-martial for refusing to return to duty.) Alvarez notes that “veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress and lost limbs, circumstances that sometimes prove more difficult for women who often fill the role of nurturers to their families.”

Alvarez also mentions some “practical considerations”:

Women on smaller bases in Iraq often share sleeping quarters with men. Equipment in women’s sizes can sometimes be harder to come by. Some women use newer forms of birth control to make their periods less frequent. Even urinating can become a problem. The military has disbursed portable contraptions the women affectionately call a weenus, for use on long truck drives.

I confess that is the first time I’ve heard of a weenus.


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