Forget Military Doublespeak: Women Are Fighting and Dying in Iraq

She busted down doors of Iraqi arms dealers in house-to-house raids in Fallujah. She seized caches of weapons and took prisoners. She fired her machine gun from a Humvee and was shot at while wearing the uniform of the United States military. She still can’t hear thunder without thinking of incoming mortar fire.

But the Department of Defense won’t say Sgt. Maria Freudigmann was in combat.

Under a federal policy, only men are allowed in frontline combat on the ground; women can join “combat support” units that are supposed to be farther away from the frontline.

In Iraq, however, the distinction between the two types of duty is blurred. In this war, there’s no real frontline. Violence can break out anytime, anywhere.

Women are getting shot at and are shooting back. They’re getting killed. One won a Silver Star for Valor in May.

Freudigmann fought alongside the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division active-duty combat troops while serving in Fallujah with the Rhode Island National Guard’s 115th Military Police Company.

But still, the Pentagon doesn’t call her work _ or that of other female soldiers in similar jobs _ combat, denying them the designation that has long been a point of pride for males.

Asked whether women are in combat in Iraq, Maj. Michael Shavers, spokesman for the Pentagon, said that Iraq is a war with an increasingly “asymmetrical battlefield” without the distinction of a clear frontline or rear.

Are women in combat?

“I’m going to stick with my original comment,” he said.

Why not just say women are in combat?

“We’re acknowledging that there is a reality where there is not a clear delineation between being in the frontline, engaged with the enemy, and in the rear in this current conflict,” he said.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services who has traveled to Iraq five times, said the Pentagon’s response is based on more “terminology than reality.”

“There are insurgents hitting willy-nilly across the countryside. Women face essentially the same dangers as their male counterparts,” Reed said.

Given the nature of the war, he said, “it’s an artificial distinction to say that they’re not in combat.”

Freudigmann, 25, of North Providence, a gunner in the 115th MP unit, is sure she saw combat.

“Oh, definitely,” she said.

She has pictures to prove it: her lieutenant’s Humvee, its window shattered by gunfire; piles of mortar tubes and weapons she seized in pre-dawn raids in Fallujah; men lying face down in the sand, their hands tied behind their backs.

“These are prisoners we took,” she said.

Her company served 87 days in Fallujah, helping combat troops fight rebels. While her two teammates were inside the unarmored Humvee, Freudigmann rode on top, in the turret, holding her M-249 machine gun.

She helped her company complete 572 raids, seize 125,000 rounds of ammunition, 60 vehicles, and 7 million in Iraqi dinars from suspected insurgents.

“Those were crazy days with a lot of raids and combat operations and females on every one of them,” said Lt. Jeffrey Floyd, who was a platoon leader with the 115th. “She took fire several times and returned fire.”

Saying that women are in combat contradicts the military philosophy and practice that has been in place for years. While women have always fought and died in wars, the Defense Department has deliberately kept women out of ground direct-combat jobs. This is based partly on the notion that society wouldn’t accept women being taken as prisoners or coming home in body bags.

In 1994, the Pentagon adopted a policy stating that females would not be allowed in infantry, field artillery, special forces or other units that engage the enemy on the ground. Women are allowed in aviation combat and on warships.

In the first Persian Gulf war, a more conventional war, the distinction between combat and combat-support troops worked well. Support troops worked behind the frontline.

But in Iraq, the military has been less able to keep women off the frontlines for several reasons. First, the war is not traditional: the rear line is Kuwait, and the frontline is anywhere in Iraq, including highways.

Secondly, in Iraq, there are more women because after the Gulf war, the Marines and the Army opened up many more military jobs to women.

Also, to fight a guerrilla-style war, the Army has been packaging some combat-support troops with combat troops.

“By anyone’s practical measure, once you’re getting shot at and shooting back, you’re in combat,” said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who tracks military issues for the Women’s Research and Education Institute.