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CAMP FOSTER — Details of Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s incarceration by Iraqi soldiers are slow in coming.

But female servicemembers in the Pacific say whatever dangers Lynch may have faced as a prisoner of war, a rare occurrence in modern military history, their commitment to duty and country has not changed.

“I think the pfc. who was captured was merely doing her job, and as a function of doing her job, she came into harm’s way,” said Army Maj. Gen. Jeanette K. Edmunds, who commands the Army’s main logistics unit in South Korea, the 19th Theater Support Command at Camp Henry in Taegu.

Women are no more vulnerable than their male counterparts to the hazards of war — and they are trained in the same basic soldier skills as men, Edmunds said. In warfare, both genders face the same hazards in captivity, she said.

“I don’t think there’s any more vulnerability at all,” she said. “Male and female prisoners have been sexually molested, abused, beaten — I don’t think it’s any less denigrating for a man to be raped than for a woman to be raped.

“And regardless of your gender, if you’re a prisoner of war, it’s a terrifying experience. You can’t expect it not to be.”

The role of women in combat situations has been highlighted recently by televised images of women serving beside men in the campaign in Iraq, where someone miles from the front lines easily can find himself or herself in harm’s way.

That’s what happened when a supply convoy lost its way early in the campaign and was ambushed by Iraqis. Of the unit’s 12 soldiers, five, one of them Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, a single mother with a 2-year-old child, were taken as prisoners of war and displayed on Iraqi television.

Others were listed as missing in action, including two women, Pvt. Lori Piestewa and Lynch.

Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., was rescued Wednesday from a hospital in Nasiriyah, where she may have been held since the March 25 ambush.

There was no immediate word on the other missing members of her unit, the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. The Pentagon reported that 11 bodies, possibly some or all of them U.S. soldiers, also were recovered from the hospital.

Female Marines at Okinawa’s Camp Foster on Wednesday welcomed the news that Lynch had been rescued but said her ordeal should not make officials think twice about placing women in harm’s way.

“I hope to see the day it isn’t an issue,” said Marine 1st Lt. Amy Malugani, the public affairs spokeswoman for Marines on Okinawa.

“We join the Marine Corps to be good Marines and fight for our country,” Malugani said. “I recognize that there are physical differences between men and women, but it all comes down to the same thing: whether you can do the job.

“Everyone is faced with challenges, everybody has weaknesses and everybody has strengths,” she said. “It doesn’t come down to a male-female thing. It’s a human being thing.”

She knows that even as a public information officer she could one day find herself in combat.

“As far as the fear factor is concerned — being in harm’s way — there’s no difference whether you’re male or female. The psychological and emotional factors are the same. You’re going to have to deal with it whether you’re a male or female.”

“We definitely have a place in combat,” said Staff Sgt. Dancy Simmons, 31, assigned to the 3rd Forces Service Support Group.

“We’re part of the mission, whether on the front line or in the rear,” said Simmons, a clerk. “What happened in Iraq shows everyone’s at risk.’

Being captured is always a concern, she added.

“The possibility of being a POW goes through everyone’s mind just the same, no matter what sex,” she said. “Women can do the job just as well as anyone else. Being wounded, killed or captured concerns a female Marine the same as a male Marine. There’s no difference.”

The reaction was much the same with women serving in the Army in South Korea.

Spc. Letina Gedeo recently arrived in South Korea, but her previous unit at Fort Hood, Texas — the 60th Chemical Company — is in Iraq and near the front lines. She just missed deploying with them. When she heard about the capture of the maintenance company soldiers, she thought, “Wow, that could have been me. I was just imagining that it could have been us in a convoy.”

“It really touched close,” said Gedeo, 26, who is with 2nd Infantry Division’s headquarters and headquarters company. “One, because I’m a woman and, two, because I’m a mechanic.”

She said the Army trains soldiers to prepare for being a prisoner of war and how to avoid it, and there is a commitment never to leave a comrade behind.

“They are not just going to leave you there,” Gedeo said. If you are captured, you have to walk by faith, she said. “And pray.”

Spc. Christina Mallory, 30, a 2nd ID personnel service specialist in South Korea, said the thought of deploying to a combat zone — with its risk of being taken prisoner — makes her nervous.

“As a female, I could easily be sexually assaulted while being held prisoner,” said Mallory, who has been in the Army for about four years.

“It would be a fear that I would have. Part of being a soldier is being able to take care of yourself, but in that situation …”

However, the fear wouldn’t stop her from going wherever the Army orders, she said.

“I would be scared at first, but I know that I volunteered for this job, so I know that’s what I have to face,” she said.

Master Sgt. Sally Toomey, a 41-year-old 2nd ID public affairs sergeant who has deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo during her more than 18 years as a soldier, said she never feared being captured.

Her first thought upon hearing a woman soldier had been taken prisoner in Iraq was, “Wow, you can’t just assume that because they’re in a noncombat arms MOS [military occupational specialty], they don’t share the same threats of being wounded, killed or taken prisoner.”

She said she doesn’t really think about the issue of rape with POWs because “mistreatment is mistreatment, whether it’s beating, torturing or sexually assaulting prisoners.”

“Regardless of the nature of mistreatment, it’s all wrong, all tragic, any way you look at it,” she said.

Nineteen-year-old Spc. Cassandra Pimienta, a supply specialist with 2nd ID, said being raped as a POW is a fear she sometimes discusses with her colleagues.

“You hear about it happening to someone else and you know it could have been you,” she said.

It’s a common argument used by opponents of placing women in combat situations. They argue that women are at more risk of being sexually assaulted if captured.

But Army doctor Lt. Col. Rhonda Cornum, one of two women POWs in the first Gulf War, says being sexually assaulted was the least of her worries.

Cornum was a flight surgeon for the Army’s 2-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion. Her helicopter was shot down on the fourth day of the ground war while attempting to rescue a downed Air Force pilot. She was a prisoner for eight days.

On a truck ride to a prison, one of her captors kissed and fondled her, she said.

“I was just amazed that he would want to do that,” Cornum said during an interview with the Public Broadcasting Service news show “Frontline.”

“That was my first thought really,” she said. “Just amazed.”

“And that was really my biggest concern. I mean, a lot of people make a big deal about getting molested, and I’m sure … it’s a … big deal. But in the hierarchy of things that were going wrong, that was pretty low on my list.”

About 15 percent of people in uniform are women, accounting for almost one of every seven servicemembers, according to the Defense Department. The lifting of the so-called “Risk Rule” by the Clinton administration in 1994 opened 90 percent of all military jobs to women.

According to the most recent enlistment figures, there were 207,000 women among the 1.39 million people in uniform.

Women have been in “combat and combat-type situations” at many points through history, said Edmunds, the major general, who noted that “women nurses were in the trenches in France in World War I dealing with mustard gas.”

Women concerned about the hazards of military service shouldn’t enlist, she said.

“The first thing I would tell them is the purpose of the military is to go into combat,” she said. “The reason we wear uniforms is to fight and win our nation’s wars.

“So I would tell them if they’re not willing to carry their weapon and put on the uniform, they should not join.”

Not all of the Marines interviewed on Camp Foster thought placing women in combat was all right.

“I have two boys, 4 years old and 6 months old, and I’m really scared of being over there,” said a 25-year-old sergeant who asked that her name not be published.

“In all honesty, I think men and women are different and many women don’t belong in combat,” she said. “Our strength and endurance levels are different, that’s why our PFT [physical fitness test] requirements are different. Our bodies are made differently.”

The thought of combat scares many of her female friends, she said.

“But no one wants to talk about it publicly — you know how macho the Corps is,” she said.

Cornum said most men in uniform feel comfortable working beside women.

“Most guys I know discover, once they have worked with women, that women are just like everybody else,” she said. “There are some that are just awesome, some that are absolutely worthless, and most of them are just in between. And I think the percentage of males who are that way is the same as the percentage of females who are that way.”

— Tim Flack, Franklin Fisher and Jeremy Kirk contributed to this report.


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