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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

Women in combat
Women are fighting, dying and being captured in this war. Denying them frontline experience and the possibility of promotion is wrong.

She didn't go looking for a fight.

Her unit was simply doing its job, ferrying supplies to the forward pushing front when their convoy was attacked near Nasiriyah on March 23. Although not a combat unit, the 507th Maintenance Company returned fire and kept fighting until it was overrun.

That much is clear. But from there, the story of Pfc. Jessica Lynch gets a little fuzzy.

Did she heroically fight the enemy, continuing to battle even after she was shot and through the pain of broken bones, as early reports suggest.

Or did she sustain most of her injuries as a POW, a reward from her Iraqi captors for refusing to break from the Army's code of conduct.

We won't know the answer until Lynch recovers enough from her wounds to be debriefed by the military. And then, only if her superiors give permission and she agrees, can she tell her tale publicly.

One person who won't be telling the tale is Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, another member of the 507th.

Piestewa, a Hopi Indian and mother of two, became the first American female soldier killed in Iraq. Her body and that of seven others in her unit were recovered during the rescue operation that freed Lynch.

Piestewa clearly qualifies to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to other fallen soldiers. But it's unclear whether Lynch qualifies for a medal or a promotion when she is cleared to return to active duty.

Although they were in a combat zone and faced enemy fire, Lynch and Piestewa weren't on a combat mission. It seems silly, from this civilian's standpoint, to draw the distinction. Nevertheless, our military still does.

A 1994 Defense Department policy prohibits women from serving in units that perform direct ground combat roles. Female soldiers in the Army and Marines can't be sent on combat missions, period.

Yet, one in seven soldiers serving in Iraq is female.

There is no question that women pilots are just as good as male pilots. It stands to reason then, that if a women are trained to the same standards as men in basic training for ground pounding, and they survive, they should be allowed to fight.

Showing courage under fire is clearly one of the only ways to win a medal, which in turn is one of the keys to winning a promotion in the military. Denying female soldiers, who are willing to put their lives on the line, the potential for advancement is sexist.

But what about women POWs who are raped?

Specialist Shoshawna Johnson, a U.S. prisoner of war, as shown on Iraqi TV. To read more about her, click here.

"Every 15 seconds in America, some woman is assaulted. Why are they worried about a woman getting assaulted once every 10 years in a war overseas? It's ridiculous," Major Rhonda Cornum, a POW during the first Gulf War, told Time magazine this week.

Cornum, the flight surgeon on a downed Blackhawk, was sexually assaulted by her Iraqi captors.

Still, she told Time, "It's clearly an emotional argument they use (to argue that women should be kept away from the frontlines) because they can't think of a rational one."

Karen Johnson, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, agreed. She told the Chicago Sun-Times this week, "I don't know what's worse: being raped or being hung by your wrists for days," as was the case for the male POWs she cared for as a nurse in the Vietnam War.

"We live in a culture that's not used to seeing women in uniform being injured," Johnson said. "War is horrible. Having males in body bags rather than females makes it no less horrible."

By changing its policy, America's military would be the first among our allies to acknowledge that given the right training, women are just as effective soldiers as men. Not even Israel allows its female soldiers in front line combat.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, would like to keep it that way.

Her group is lobbying for policy changes that would prevent women from serving close to combat, citing the physical differences between men and women.

"The strongest woman is as strong as the weakest man," Donnelly told the Sun-Times, and with soldiers carrying 100-pound packs, their smaller muscles can pose a risk to the company. "Women don't have an equal opportunity to survive," she said.

On the center's Web site, Donnelly cites Cornum's case as proof. "Advocates of women in combat often talk about 'sharing the risk' of war, but the truth is that women face unequal and greater risks. Vulnerabilities unique to women can and probably will be exploited by enemy captors in this and similar situations as the War on Terrorism continues."

I disagree.

I've met women who could kick my butt and I'm 5'10" and well over 200 pounds.

If it was up to me, I'd close the military gender gap even one step further.

I believe the Selective Service Act should be amended so that WOMEN who are 18-25 must register the same as men.

If this country ever faces such a huge crisis that it must reinstitute the draft, it's simply wrong to limit the pool of available resources to men only.

Consider it the price of citizenship for us all.

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at . To read his previous columns, click here.

April 7, 2003