Many female servicemembers have tasted combat
HAMPTON ROADS, Va. — The night the mortars rained down on her unit along a dirt road in Iraq, Alyce Clark didn't feel like someone who had been barred from ground combat.
It was a cold, dark December evening in 2003 - American forces had just captured Saddam Hussein - and Clark's Virginia Beach-based National Guard unit was helping Army infantrymen conduct a roadside security checkpoint.
Clark, the lone woman assigned to the detail, was there to comfort women and children while her male counterparts searched vehicles for weapons.
The first bomb fell minutes after they started working at the checkpoint, sending Clark diving for cover in a muddy ditch. The mortars continued to explode around them as the soldiers raced to their vehicles and sped away.
Thursday's action by defense officials ending the ban on women serving in ground combat will open tens of thousands of jobs to women in the military, especially in the Army and Marine Corps, where about a third of all billets had been off limits to women.
But many female servicemembers, including Sgt. 1st Class Clark, have already served at or near the front lines during a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I was out there just like the men," said Clark, a Norfolk police officer who deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2009 with the Virginia National Guard's 229th Military Police Company. "At this point, it doesn't really make sense to keep women out of combat. We're already there."
The pressures of combat over the past decade saw women who worked as medics, military police and intelligence officers attached to and working with combat battalions. Unlike the ground wars of the past, these conflicts had no defined "front line." Units of Army transportation specialists - male and female truck drivers and mechanics tasked with moving supply convoys across Iraq - were regularly targeted by insurgents who planted homemade bombs in the road.
Because of cultural demands, women were assigned to female engagement teams and sent out on dangerous patrols through Iraq and Afghanistan. Their job was to engage women and children in ways that their male counterparts couldn't in conservative Muslim communities.
Women also have been permitted to perform one of the most dangerous jobs in both wars - clearing bomb-laden streets as explosive ordnance disposal technicians - though few have signed up for the duty. Of the Navy's 1,567 EOD techs, 21 are women.
More than 280,000 women have deployed in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 military members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
Clark, 32, said her military police company routinely endured mortar attacks during her first deployment, providing security at a forward operating base about 20 miles west of Baghdad.
In late November of that year, as explosives crashed down on the base, detainees started a riot that injured nine MPs, including a few members of the 229th.
Between bomb blasts, Clark and her teammates fired nonlethal rounds at prisoners. When they ran out of rubber bullets, MPs fired live rounds. Three detainees were killed.
Clark became emotional Thursday while talking about the riot and the shelling her company took almost nightly.
"During the attacks, it didn't matter if you were a man or woman," Clark said. "We were all out there together."
After escaping the roadside ambush, Clark spent the rest of that December night helping infantrymen from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division search nearby homes for the men who launched the attack.
She was told to stay with women and children while male soldiers searched their homes for insurgents.
At one house, while standing watch over a woman and a couple of kids in a room that the male soldiers had already cleared, Clark noticed an odd pile of clothes on the floor.
"Something didn't seem right," she said.
She trained her rifle on the pile and instructed the woman, in broken Arabic, to move the clothing. The woman complied, revealing an insurgent hiding underneath, clutching a Quran. Clark shouted for backup, and the male soldiers rushed in.
"They had totally missed it." Clark said. "They screwed up. But I didn't."