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In military police units, male and female soldiers work together. Here, members of the 233rd Military Police Company, a National Guard unit from Springfield, Ill., relax on top of their Humvee. From left are: Spc. Michael Thompson Jr., Spc. Janet Sutter and Sgt. Richard Carroll. Spc. Ommy Frizarry, right, is with the 519th Military Police Battalion from Fort Polk, La.
In military police units, male and female soldiers work together. Here, members of the 233rd Military Police Company, a National Guard unit from Springfield, Ill., relax on top of their Humvee. From left are: Spc. Michael Thompson Jr., Spc. Janet Sutter and Sgt. Richard Carroll. Spc. Ommy Frizarry, right, is with the 519th Military Police Battalion from Fort Polk, La. (Marni McEntee / S&S)

BAGHDAD — Staff Sgt. Wendy McDermott, a nurse with the 67th Combat Support Hospital who just arrived in Iraq, always takes a buddy when she has to stray far from her living quarters or work area.

Traveling in pairs in a combat zone, said the Würzburg, Germany-based soldier, provides a measure of protection against all enemies — foreign or domestic.

“It’s bothersome, but you have to be careful in this environment,” said McDermott, 31, of Selingsgrove, Penn.

“It’s so overwhelmingly male here.”

The buddy system, which is unit policy, is one example of how the Army seeks to protect deployed female soldiers from sexual assault — an issue that is on the forefront of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s agenda.

On Thursday, Rumsfeld ordered a review of the department’s policy on sexual assault and the treatment of victims. The review, due back to Rumsfeld in three months, was prompted by a Jan. 25 Denver Post article that reported 37 female servicemembers sought counseling and other help from civilian rape crisis organizations after returning from war duty in Iraq and Kuwait.

Several soldiers interviewed Saturday in Iraq and Afghanistan said they were not aware of any sexual assaults in their units.

“I haven’t heard of anything like that,” said Pfc. Francesca Duke, of the 501st Military Police Company, 1st Armored Division, deployed to Baghdad. “Most of it’s pretty squared away,” said Duke, 21, of La Quinta, Calif.

Others, such as Sgt. Pamela Beasley of 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment, 1st Armored Division, said they trusted their chains of command to handle any such report.

“Nine times out of 10, if anybody were caught doing something like that, they’re gone,” said Beasley, 28, of Shreveport, La.

Roughly 59,742 women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq between October 2002 and November 2003. About 92 percent of military jobs are open to women.

In units where men and women work together, the military provides separate living and, usually, shower and toilet facilities.

That separation, Duke said, is really designed to prevent “mutual” attractions between men and women, as well as provide a modicum of privacy for each gender.

Despite such measures, Sgt. Carol Ralls, deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, said she often finds the deployment atmosphere sexually charged.

“You can be a single woman in a crowd of 10 men, and all these men are talking about is sex — graphic issues about sex,” said Ralls, with the 518th Signal Company, from Fort Gordon, Ga.

To some extent, she said, women in the military just have to “humor” what is basically an annoyance. If talk gets to the point it’s offending, “you can get up and leave on your own. It’s nothing you’re going to cry to someone about.” But if it gets to the point where it’s getting out of hand, “you have to report it,” Ralls said.

In response to questions about Rumsfeld’s review, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a senior Army leader in Iraq, said, “Whenever there’s an allegation, we investigate it very thoroughly.”

All servicemembers, whether deployed or not, receive annual training on the military’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy, he said.

“We take the matter very seriously,” said Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for Combined Joint Task Force-7.

Col. Lou Marich, commander of the 1st Armored Division Engineer Brigade in Baghdad, said he found news of the review “upsetting,” because he has tried to create a climate in which all soldiers feel comfortable airing serious problems with their leaders.

“I would like to believe that my female soldiers would have the courage to come through this chain of command,” Marich said.

Duke, of the Friedberg, Germany-based 501st MP Company, said she would feel comfortable going to her leaders, unless the assault was by someone in her platoon.

“Then I might feel intimidated because I’d have to live with the guy for another two years,” Duke said.

— Staff writers Sandra Jontz in Washington, D.C., and Terry Boyd in Afghanistan contributed to this report.

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