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Fort Lee museum shows gradual shift of women in combat

FORT LEE — Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made history and signed a policy change reversing the exclusion of women from combat roles in the military. But while the policy change is official now, women have had a long history with the Army and that story is told at the Army Women's Museum on Fort Lee.

Francoise Bonnell, director of the Army Women's Museum, says that the policy change is part of the evolution of the role of women in the Army - particularly over the past 10 years.

"If you look at the history of women in the Army, they have served in many capacities since the Revolutionary War," Bonnell said. Those roles were either out of a desire to volunteer or out of the need of the country.

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The increasing role of women has its roots in the Women's Army Corps, which was started in 1943. "It was supposed to be a temporary thing that would last through the war and six months past the end of the war," Bonnell said. "In 1948 though there was a permanant WAC established."

Over time, into the 1970s opportunities for women increased in the Army and included the first female cadet at West Point Military Academy and women in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, eventually leading to the disestablishment in 1978 of the WAC and the creation of new opportunities for women in the Army.

Bonnell said that over the past six to eight years there have been an ever increasing number of opportunities in part due to the nature of the War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. "There have been more than 100 women that have died serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom," Bonnell said, explaining a memorial exhibit to their lives at the museum.

One reason for the casualties is the fact that there are no "front lines" with missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Many of the women who have been killed were serving in sustainment positions that would find themselves in the same fire fight with their combat arms brethren," Bonnell said. In some cases it's even led to acts of heroism. Bonnell specifically cited Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, the first woman to be awarded the silver star for direct combat action. Hester, with the U.S. Army National Guard 617th Military Police Company, was shadowing a supply convoy that came under attack.

Hester assaulted a trench line with M203 grenade launcher round and grenades. Squad leader Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein and Hester cleared two trenches and Hester killed three insurgents with her rifle. When the fighting ceased, 27 insurgents were dead, six were wounded, and one was captured.

"Something that all soldiers learn is that they are an infantryman first," Bonnell said. "It's part of the nature of the changing shape of the battlefield."

Another aspect of the changing nature of the battlefield is Female Engagement Teams and Cultural Support Teams.

Bonnell said that the Marines began fielding Female Engagement Teams as early as 2005 - female Marines that were trained for interacting with a part of Afghanistan that their male colleagues could not reach - women.

In the Army, the practice of using Cultural Support Teams began in the special operations units, Bonnell said, but the practice has since spread. In addition, Bonnell said that last year the Army opened 14,000 more jobs for women and opened up new Military Occupational Specialties to women.

Though there has been growth in the role of women in the Army recently, it isn't limited to just now or the current conflict either. "During Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, there was the single largest call up of women in the Army," Bonnell said, adding that 24,000 female soldiers were asked to serve their country in that conflict. Some of those were captured or killed, which Bonnell said she believes led to the 1994 Combat Exclusion Policy that Panetta overturned last week. "In the last 10 years, we've had 150,000 women serving in the Army and that exceeds the number of women that served in World War II."

The Department of Defense notes that a total of 280,000 women have deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from all branches of the armed forces and that women make up approximately 15 percent, or nearly 202,400, of the U.S. military's 1.4 million active personnel.

Bonnell said that as part of the growing and continuing story of women in the Army, the museum will be working to preserve significant artifacts that tell the story. "We try and collect them as the story is told," she said.

That includes oral histories, written documents, newspaper articles and even web content.

"Blogs and opinion posts, late night talk shows, we're trying to capture the reaction within society," Bonnell said. To a certain degree she said there has been a repetitive sound to some of the criticism of Panetta's announcement last week and the WACs from 1943.

"Some of the arguments against are very similar," Bonnell said, including how will the country react two women when they die in combat, how will women be able to take care of their hygiene needs in a field environment and how will women's role in society be affected.

"Every time I visited the war zone, every time I've met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I've been impressed with the fact that everyone - men and women alike - everyone is committed to doing the job," Panetta said in the announcement Thursday. "They're fighting and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality."

- F.M. Wiggins may be reached at 804-732-3456, ext. 3254 or fwiggins@progress-index.com.

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