WASHINGTON – When a roadside bomb in Iraq (search) exploded on Feb. 9, Army Sgt. Jessica M. Housby became the 21st female soldier killed in action since the war began nearly two years ago.
That may seem a small number, given that hostile deaths among U.S. troops recently surpassed 1,000 and is getting closer to 1,500 when fatal accidents and other nonbattle deaths are included.
But by historical measure it is high and reflects the fundamentally different nature of this war, where even a truck driver such as Housby is a target.
No one is suggesting that women be kept off the modern-day battlefield. But some question whether an Army that is being reconfigured to respond swiftly and more effectively to conflicts such as the one in Iraq is placing some female soldiers in what amounts to the front lines of fighting.
As in past wars, women are barred from units assigned to direct ground combat. That keeps women out of the infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineers and Special Forces. But it does not keep them out of danger.
The nature of combat itself has changed a great deal in Iraq since the toppling of Baghdad (search) in April 2003. Within weeks, a violent insurgency took hold; it remains a deadly force.
In Iraq, there is no front line in the traditional sense of armies fighting armies. The front lines are everywhere — at a site where insurgents lay an ambush, plant a roadside bomb, lob a mortar or detonate an improvised car bomb.
Thus it is not just infantrymen, trained to kill in close combat, who are dying in Iraq, although they are taking the heaviest losses. Soldiers whose roles are categorized as "support," where most of the women in the U.S. military are found, sometimes find themselves in the insurgents' line of fire.
Housby, 23, from Rock Island (search), Ill., had been in Iraq since October as a member of the Illinois Army National Guard's 1644th Transportation Company. Two other female soldiers of the Illinois Guard have been killed in Iraq — one by mortar fire, the other by a roadside bomb.
In all, 31 female soldiers have died in the Iraq war, including 10 whose deaths were declared nonhostile, according to the Pentagon.
The most recent death was Spc. Katrina L. Bell-Johnson, 32, of Orangeburg, S.C., who died in a vehicle accident in Baqouba on Feb. 16.
In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, five women were killed in action and 10 were nonhostile casualties. In the Vietnam War, women's roles were restricted to administrative, medical and communications work that was mostly performed in more secure rear areas. During that war, only one woman was killed in ground combat. Five others died in military plane and helicopter crashes; two died of medical problems.
Shortly after the Gulf War, the Pentagon opened more military jobs to women, including piloting attack and scout helicopters. The military also spelled out the kinds of assignments that would remain off limits — any job requiring a female soldier to "physically collocate and remain with" ground combat units that are closed to women.
The distinction then was clear. Now, the Army is redesigning its main fighting forces to make them "modular," or interchangeable.
Some in Congress are asking whether the reconfigured combat brigades have placed women in positions that violate either the letter or the spirit of the policies meant to keep women out of direct combat.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said recently that his committee is investigating the matter. David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said his office is "working closely with the Army staff" to review the matter.
Army leaders say they see no reason to doubt that the policy against assigning sex-integrated support companies to ground combat battalions is the correct one.
In letters to the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees in mid-January, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey said his staff had reviewed compliance with the relevant laws and policies on women in combat in light of the new configuration of Army brigades.
"My assessment is that in our new brigade combat teams no women will be assigned to a unit below brigade level whose primary mission is direct ground combat," Harvey wrote. "Neither will women be routinely collocated with units assigned a direct combat mission." Therefore there is no policy conflict, he said.
Not everyone agrees.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, says the Army is misleading Congress by denying that women in support companies are being placed at the front lines of combat. She argues that the presence of female soldiers beside male ground combat troops undermines morale, weakens cohesion and could lead to troublesome "romantic entanglements."
"You set a precedent that would affect all of the combat units, including Special Forces and the Marine Corps. These are radical changes," said Donnelly, a leading opponent of expanding the role of women in the military.
A senior Army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, denied that the Army has altered its policy on women in combat. He stressed that female soldiers are making major contributions in Iraq.
"We're not interested in glossing over the reality that women are exposed to the hazards of combat," he said.