Two articles in the New York Times this week explore the realities of women deployed to areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. While the articles focuse on the increase of women in combat situations, both briefly touch on gender-specific dangers.
In the new series "Women At Arms," the Times explores the world of women in a combat zone. Once relegated to the sidelines of battle, increasingly vague battle lines and the intense need for soldiers has caused many military officials to skirt congressional mandates and start using women in a much greater capacity.
However, while important innovations have been made with women earning recognition for their determination and sacrifice, two other areas of concern have bubbled to the surface. In the first article, "G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier," it is explained:
This quiet change has not come seamlessly - and it has altered military culture on the battlefield in ways large and small. Women need separate bunks and bathrooms. They face sexual discrimination and rape, and counselors and rape kits are now common in war zones. Commanders also confront a new reality: that soldiers have sex, and some will be evacuated because they are pregnant.
This assertion that pregnancy bears special consideration is also repeated later in the article:
To be sure, not all women in the military embrace the idea of going into combat. Like men, a few do what they can to try to get out of deployments. Military women and commanders say some women have timed their pregnancies to avoid deploying or have gotten pregnant in Iraq so they would be sent home. The Army declined to release numbers on how many women have been evacuated from a war zone for pregnancy.
However, this does not seem to be as large of a deal as it sounds. The next article in the series, "Living and Fighting Alongside Men, and Fitting In," explains:
Women do become pregnant - a condition that, intentional or not, in or out of wedlock, requires the woman to be flown out within two weeks, causing personnel disruptions in individual units.
The Army and Marine Corps declined to say exactly how many women left Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of pregnancies, but it appears to be relatively rare and has had little effect on overall readiness, commanders say. At Warhorse, the First Stryker Brigade, which has thousands of soldiers, has sent only three women home because of pregnancies in 10 months in Iraq, the brigade said.
A larger problem is sexual harassment and rape - both on and off the battlefield. Not only is domestic violence (often ending in fatalities) a well established problem, but female troops on deployment have to deal with even more uncomfortable and possibly deadly situations:
Sexual harassment in a still-predominantly male institution remains a problem. So does sexual assault. Both are underreported, soldiers and officers here say, because the rigidity of the military chain of command can make accusations uncomfortable and even risky for victims living in close quarters with the men they accuse.
We've seen these types of stories before, most notably in the cases of Pfc. LaVena Johnson and Kamisha Block, both women who died while deployed, either at the hands of their intimate partners or other members of their unit. However, the articles choose to focus more on the outside dangers:
As a precaution, women are advised to travel in pairs, particularly in smaller bases populated with Iraqi troops and civilians. Capt. Margaret D. Taafe-McMenamy, commander of the intelligence analysis cell at Warhorse, carries a folding knife and a heavy, ridged flashlight - a Christmas gift from her husband, whom she lives with here - as a precaution when she is out at night on the base.
There is also a heavy focus on cultural differences, particularly in terms of the roles of women soldiers in an environment like Iraq:
The involvement of women in it has been a cultural shock for Iraqi men far less accustomed to dealing with women professionally, especially in the military.
Women spoke of inappropriate comments or uncomfortable flattery, and even gifts. "It was everything from candy to lingerie," said Capt. Victoria Ferreira, 29, who spent a year with an 11-person squad training Iraqi officers. "How do you react to that? ‘Thank you?' "
For the most part, though, Iraqis seem to accept the role of women in the American military - they have even expanded their own ranks for tasks like searching women at checkpoints - even if it seems unlikely that women will be incorporated more widely into the Iraqi armed forces anytime soon.
The words of Patricia F. Bradford (pictured above) give an accurate summation into the lives of female soldiers, who despite proving themselves in tough situations, find that they are still fighting the same battle, day after day.
Staff Sgt. Patricia F. Bradford, 27, a psychological operations soldier, said that slights, subtle and not, were common, and some were easier to brush off than others. Women are still viewed derisively at times in the confined, occasionally tense space of an outpost like Warhorse.
"You're a bitch, a slut or a dyke - or you're married, but even if you're married, you're still probably one of the three," Sergeant Bradford said.