WASHINGTON – When Pfc. Lynndie England (search) faces a military hearing next Tuesday, Army lawyers will focus on her role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal but the court of public opinion may look at something bigger — the growing role of women in the modern military.
England is the short, fresh-faced soldier immortalized in photographs pointing at the genitals of Iraqi prisoners or holding a leash attached to the neck of one Iraqi. She's also pregnant and the father of her child is a fellow soldier now being charged with adultery because of his relationship with her.
Her case has helped reopen the debate over gender in the military with a vengeance. Beyond the Abu Ghraib (search) incidents, there are reports of widespread sexual activity, pregnant female soldiers, and darker reports of rapes against women.
"My problem is not with the women in the military — it’s the women who claim to speak for them, the flawed policies that are making their jobs more difficult and more dangerous and we’re now seeing the consequences," charged Elaine Donnelly, longtime critic of women’s integration in the military and director of the Center for Military Readiness (search).
On the other hand, supporters of more integration say they are unwilling to impede the progress of women because of "a few bad apples" and ineffective Pentagon policies regarding sexual harassment and sexual activity in the ranks.
"Women have acted bravely and heroically, and they have done what they have needed to do. They shouldn’t be stained by the misdeeds of a few," said Ret. Navy Capt. Laurie Manning, an analyst for the Women’s Research and Education Institute (search).
"There is a conservative element in this country that never thought women should be in the military to begin with," said Martha Burk, president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (search).
There are 60,000 women today who are serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom (search), or have been rotated out of the theater in the last year, according to the Pentagon. Though nearly 100,000 female personnel and nurses served in special units in World War II and 40,000 in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, women serving in support and military police roles today are in more integrated units and closer to combat than ever before.
And the close quarters have created in some cases an environment of heightened sexual tension among men and women, according to military sources and experts.
Members of Congress got an eyeful last month when they reviewed the hundreds of photos at the center of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, and reported seeing images of sexual activity between American men and women.
The number of pregnancies occurring in the theater of Operation Iraqi Freedom are difficult to track, mainly because, according to the Pentagon and the individual branches of service, no one is collecting the data. But for months, soldiers and officials have been quietly reporting that the pregnancies are growing in number.
"There is no data because the Pentagon refuses to give us data," said Martha Keder, who served in the Air Force during the 1980s and is now an analyst with the Concerned Women of America (search). She said the rate of pregnancies is much more than the Pentagon is willing to allow.
A Female Healthcare Issues brief presented in February by Central Command to the Department of Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Military (DACOWITS) (search), reported, however, that 89 women requested evacuations out of theater due to pregnancy from September 2002 through October 2003.
Manning cautions against a hasty response. "When we send a women home for being pregnant, there’s also a guy being sent home because he got in some stupid accident playing softball," she charged. Others point out that pregnancy rates in the theater are no higher than in the civilian world.
That doesn’t matter, charged Donnelly. Unlike a broken ankle, women who are pregnant don’t come back. "When you are on a ship and you have a specific job, and all of a sudden you aren’t there, it hurts everybody else," she said.
"They don’t get a replacement. It hurts morale."
The photos of England are not the images supporters like Burke and Manning want to project. They admit this threatens to impact the cause. England is one of seven male and female soldiers facing courts-martial for alleged abuse at Abu Ghraib.
"They [conservatives] will seize on this incident of evidence that women should not in fact be in the military," Burk said. "Should it have an effect? No."
Meanwhile, they all agree should be more meaningful policies on sexual activity, sexual harassment and rape.
"You go in the medical tent and there is a bowl of condoms sitting out like candy — it’s sending mixed messages," said Keder. "What’s going on here is outrageous conduct. It’s really a command issue."
Though there are longstanding rules against fraternization — relationships of any close nature between officers and enlisted personnel — there seems to be a void in the rules regarding consensual sex throughout the ranks, said experts.
Add stressful conditions of war, and you get a volatile mix, said Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert, author of "Camouflage Isn’t Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality and Women in the Military."
"That’s human nature," she said, noting that stricter rules against unprotected sex should be enforced. But separating men and women again won’t do. "They need to work together no matter the context."
Critics say the problems begin in co-ed basic training, which exists in all branches except for the Marine Corps. This is part of a sweeping policy change in 1994 that opened 91 percent of the military to women, save for combat, which is still off-limits.
"Congress has been told that co-ed training is harming the services," said Donnelly. "They could get rid of it tomorrow but they still have not done it."
Kristine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation (search), a national sex assault referral center, said that since October 2002, they have had more than 150 cases of women who said they were sexually assaulted by their own fellow soldiers overseas. The number is greater than the 118 reported by the Pentagon in May.
She suggests that close quarters and unit integration has in part fostered unhealthy competition and resentment among soldiers, putting women in a bad place.
"We’ve been hearing about harassment and sexually charged atmospheres," she said. "It’s not something that is talked about a great deal."
Because of this, critics say the need for a national debate is now. But Manning says the legacy of women in the military is a proud one, and supporters don’t plan on giving an inch.
"The major thing that that women have accomplished," she said, "is that the men they have worked with, on the whole, have gained more respect of their capabilities."