Women At War

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Early on March 20, 2003, when the desert sky was still shrouded in darkness, stadium lights shone down on Al Jabar Air Base in Kuwait and lit the path to the flight line for a 28-year-old Marine captain whose jumpsuit ID tag bore the name “McGrath.” 

The aviator strode briskly across the flight line with other pilots from the Green Knights all-weather fighter/attack squadron. Like millions of U.S. Marines and soldiers before, McGrath was heading into combat. Like the hundreds of combat aviators flying from Al Jabar and other air bases in the region that day, McGrath had trained with a squadron to be here, cost the U.S. government $1 million for a year’s worth of preparation, and was responsible for a $50 million aircraft. And like nearly 20 percent of the personnel in combat support and service units about to enter Iraq, McGrath was a woman. 

How she and other women in the U.S. military performed in jets and helicopters, on aircraft carriers, in convoys and in surgical wards, and when they came face-to-face with enemy prisoners of war, would validate or refute one of the most radical, controversial, and public experiments in the annals of U.S. military history. The eyes of the enemy were on her as she took off. So were the eyes of her countrymen. Would she and other women be successful? 

From the Amazons of Greek mythology and Joan of Arc to the women warriors trained by the Soviet Union and Israel, women have long served in combat, but not in the United States. For more than 200 years, women have worn a U.S. uniform in times of war as nurses, soldiers, and spies. In World War I, 30,000 women who could not even vote served in support roles. A profound turning point for women in the military came after Pearl Harbor, when Army and Navy nurses worked side by side tending to more than 2,000 wounded servicemen. 

In many ways, the 1991 Gulf War marked a watershed for U.S. military women: More than 40,000 went to war, four times the number who served in Vietnam, where only one died from enemy fire. In the first Gulf War, eleven women were killed in action; two were taken prisoners of war. 

Yet, it was not until after the first Gulf War ended that major policy changes occurred. President Clinton signed  the military bill ending combat exclusion for  women on warships. Despite the recommendation of the Presidential Commission on 

the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered all branches of the armed services to open combat aviation to women in 1993. About 80 percent of the jobs and more than 90 percent of the career fields in the armed forces are now available to the best qualified and available person, regardless of gender. In 1994 the USS Eisenhower, a Navy aircraft carrier, received sixty women.

In today’s war, women are often as vulnerable as men, even though they cannot drive tanks or serve in the infantry. But driving humvees and trucks, as well as flying jets and helicopters puts women often in harm’s way. Since the war began in March 2003, more than a hundred women have been killed and more than 400 have been wounded in Iraq. [See  American Heritage’s tribute to United States women who have given their lives.] 

The stories of captains Amy McGrath and Robin Brown told here illustrate some of the challenges faced by women in combat. How would the women and the individual branches of the military respond in the harrowing days, months, and years to come? Was the Army prepared to send thousands of women into combat? Were the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy? And were the women ready for what lay ahead? How willing were they to adapt? 

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Whitewolf Zero Six, we’re going down!” shouted Army Captain Robin Brown into the mouthpiece attached to her helmet. Just moments earlier, she and Chief Warrant Officer Two Jeff Sumner, pilots of a Kiowa Warrior helicopter, heard a large explosion, felt their aircraft lurch forward, shake violently, and then begin a free fall. Warning sounds erupted in the cockpit and lights flashed. 

Brown grabbed her shoulder harness and locked herself in. She reached for the “microphone,” located on the cyclic, which controls the forward, backward, left, and right movement of the helicopter. It took a second for Brown to grasp the violently shaking cyclic. Sumner had his hand on the collective, a joystick used to raise and lower the aircraft.

She repeated her Mayday call. 

As commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 82nd Aviation Regiment, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Brown led a company of 26 pilots, who flew Kiowa helicopters on armed reconnaissance missions. In Iraq, their primary mission was to respond to an attack on a moment’s notice, a.k.a. quick response force (QRF). The missions were extremely stressful for the pilots, who received information on their way out the door. Seldom did they know exactly what they were flying into when they arrived at the scene of a conflict. A battle could be ongoing or it could have just ended, with insurgents still fighting or fleeing. 

Once airborne, Brown kept an eye on all the activity both in the sky and on the ground, took care of navigation, and maintained communications. Kiowas fly low and fast, thirty to fifty feet above the ground (about the height of a two-story house) and at speeds of 85 to 90 knots, slow enough to observe activities on the ground, yet fast enough to avoid small arms fire and shoulder-launched missiles. 

Brown’s aircraft got hit on December 9, 2003, four months into her Iraq deployment. Twenty-eight-year-old Brown, thirty-one-year-old Sumner, and their sister ship with two other pilots had just provided security for a convoy delivering new currency to Baghdad and were making the hour-and-a-half flight back to the Al Taqaddum Air Base.