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The Iraq War’s Legacies for Women in Combat

Two U.S. servicewomen in combat dress sit on the hood of a truck in Iraq.

Two U.S. Army soldiers from Brigade Support Troop Battalion, Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division relax prior to departing on a mission from Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq on May 21, 2007. Photograph by Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller, U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons.

On March 20, 2005, two years to the day after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, Army Specialist Ashley Pullen drove a Humvee in a routine patrol south of Baghdad. Pullen was a member of the 617th Military Police Company and, like all women in the military at that time, officially a noncombatant. But when her convoy came under attack, Pullen found herself in the middle of combat. After discharging her M4 rifle in the direction of the ambush, she heard the screams of a fellow soldier and ran 300 feet to him, where she protected him with her own body during a subsequent blast. For her actions, Pullen received the Bronze Star with valor device, a designation only awarded for meritorious service in combat. Yet, according to her official status, she should never have been in combat at all.

Twenty years after the American War in Iraq began, and fifty years into the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), countless servicewomen have had similar, seemingly contradictory experiences. Although women have served in both unofficial and official military capacities throughout U.S. history, the advent of the AVF in 1973 marked a sea change in women’s experiences and opportunities. Facing the prospect of being unable to recruit enough men, the armed forces began to rely on women to meet personnel requirements to an unprecedented degree. These changes occurred in an era of expanding legal and social equality for women, and so as the military increasingly relied on women, it also began to remove longstanding restrictions on the jobs they could perform. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s and 1990s, women entered the military in record-setting numbers, integrated the service academies, performed jobs previously closed to them, and broke all manner of brass ceilings.

However, it was not until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Department of Defense removed the last remaining restriction on women’s service: the restriction against participation in ground combat.

Women like Ashley Pullen highlighted the impracticality of the restriction, both for its inapplicability on the ground and for its underlying assumption that women could not, or should not, engage in combat. In a war without clear fronts, where improvised explosive devices caused 60 percent of American fatalities, and where counterinsurgency necessitated the use of American women to interact with Iraqi women and children, the combat restriction that limited women’s participation in the war soon proved unsustainable.

“Combat” had always been an imprecise designation, however. Noncombatant status did not protect nurses from direct fire in either World War, nor did it prevent seventy-seven Army and Navy nurses from being held prisoner in the Philippines during World War II. Military and government leaders rationalized women’s military labor as a way to free men to fight, but women engaged in total wars endured nebulous and unconstrained dangers regardless of their position or role.

Although the legislation that had authorized women to serve as soldiers, sailors, and Marines—in explicitly noncombatant roles—was set to expire six months after the end of World War II, women’s wartime work convinced many skeptics of its value. With military leaders advocating for a continuation of women’s military service, in 1948 Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act to create permanent women’s units in each of the services.

Yet, even then, Congress and the military limited the ways women could serve. Restricted to 2 percent of the total force and their ranks capped at colonel or Navy captain, women could serve only in support roles and could never command men. Congress again codified its understanding that women would not be assigned to combat. That was a fairly simple designation in the Navy and Air Force, where women could be restricted from certain ships and aircraft.

In the Army, such distinctions proved much fuzzier. As the Integration Act wound its way through the halls of Congress, a nascent Cold War was heating up and potential conflict with the Soviet Union loomed in the background. With Soviet nuclear capabilities expanding, many feared that another war might not be too far in the future and that it might not be limited by geography or to combatants. President Truman asked Congress to reinstate the draft as a precautionary measure.

In this Cold War era of heightened fears about what wars of the future might entail, the Army could not offer a clear definition of “combat” and so Congress left it to the Secretary of the Army to decide. Over the following decades, the Army variously defined “combat” as one’s place on a linear field of battle, a presumed distance away from danger, or direct engagement with the enemy. At some points, the Army associated combat more with one’s job, or the level of perceived risk associated with a particular assignment. Whatever its precise definition, women moved closer to “combat” in the years after integration, with the pace quickening in the post–Vietnam War era. Restrictions on air and sea combat fell first, while policies restricting women from ground combat—presumably, the most physically intimate form of combat—proved most intractable.

By 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, women could participate in combat aviation, serve on combat ships, and deploy on submarines. However, official Army policy barred them from assignments in “units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” The Army defined combat as “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel.”

Two Iraqi women stand against a wall, arms outstretched, next to two children. Two U.S. army soldiers search the women, one patting them down.

Two female U.S. Army soldiers search two Iraqi women before allowing them to enter the Kardum Shihan School in Bassam, Iraq, during a medical civic action program on March 17, 2006. The soldiers are from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment. Photograph via U.S. Department of Defense.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Few of these specifications made much sense in Iraq or Afghanistan, either to the military or women. Commanders needed American servicewomen to engage with local women and resorted to rhetorical acrobatics to “attach” (as opposed to “assign”) women to combat units that searched neighborhoods and villages. Women like Pullen found that combat came to them, regardless of policy prohibitions or their location on the ground.

For the first ten years of the post-9/11 wars, then, servicewomen were both vital to the war and excluded from certain parts of it because of their sex. Essential to counterinsurgency and to the military’s functioning at large, women served in ways that violated official policy but that military leaders deemed necessary. Their experiences exposed the difficulties and impracticality of combat exclusions and ultimately helped to end them, though not without resistance. Women who had served in, been wounded by, and decorated for combat service publicly advocated and brought suit against the Department of Defense to remove the remaining restrictions on women’s service. While the DOD’s recension of restrictions ultimately rendered the case moot, servicewomen and their advocates continued to press for full implementation of women into all military roles. Cultural conservatives opposed any changes, citing the same gender and family ideals that had framed their critiques of women’s service for decades.

Military leaders understood the matter both pragmatically and as a matter of principle. Excluding women, they argued, limited the effectiveness of the force and stunted the broader culture of inclusion that they hoped to cultivate. Having long argued against women’s participation in all forms of combat, the military changed course to argue that their full inclusion was essential. In 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the removal of all restrictions on women’s service. Their experience on the ground would be matched by policy. And with that, all barriers to women’s service fell—at least, all official barriers.

If sex proved irrelevant in defining, much less restricting, combat, it proved central to women’s experiences. Being the first of anything is often a difficult and isolating experience, something that Ashley Pullen and thousands of other servicewomen understood well. Already a minority of the military at large, servicewomen were often attached to combat units in pairs. However much women attempted to integrate into those units seamlessly, they always stood out. Recognition for their efforts could exacerbate already fraught relationships. For example, winning the Bronze Star with valor device created tensions within Pullen’s unit, and she felt ostracized from male comrades who alleged that she had not deserved the recognition.

While many women returned home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with fond memories of comradeship, many others did not. The two wars that brought down the last remaining restrictions on women’s service also exposed deeply rooted misogyny that continues to shape women’s experiences in the armed forces today.

The award-winning 2012 documentary The Invisible War focused public and Congressional attention on the astonishing rates of sexual harassment and assault in the military, just as combat restrictions fell. Commissions, studies, and investigations followed, yet recent studies have documented a rise in sexual assaults and harassment within the armed forces at large and at the military academies that are training the next generation of officers. Thirty percent of young people polled in 2021 indicated that the possibility of sexual harassment and assault ranked among the primary detractors of military service.

The Veterans Administration estimates that 1 in 4 servicewomen suffer from Military Sexual Trauma, a condition that researchers have suggested is the number one cause of women veterans’ rising rates of suicide. Add in Post-Traumatic Stress, induced by sexual assault or war, or both, and women veterans face particularly harsh long-term effects of their service.

The military has made demonstrable strides in recent years to address women’s needs, though often belatedly. It took several years after the removal of combat restrictions for the DOD to begin designing body armor specifically for women. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act included a bill to eliminate the “pink tax” on women’s military uniforms, which studies estimated cost women thousands more over their careers than did men’s.

Other efforts seek to make the military more accommodating to servicemembers with children. The expansion of military parental leave policies, efforts to make nursing or pumping convenient for new mothers, and guarantees of women’s access to reproductive care and abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision all suggest a concerted effort to make women’s family and health needs conducive with military service.

All of these efforts may prove increasingly important. Diminishing numbers of young people meet enlistment standards, while few of those who do are interested in military service. As the military has recently fallen considerably short of its recruiting goals, some former military leaders have even begun to question the long-term feasibility of the All-Volunteer Force.

Women proved crucial to the viability and sustainability of the AVF in its early days, they proved critical to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and they will undoubtedly be essential to the military’s future.

Iraq War veterans like Ashley Pullen have shown us that sex should be no barrier to women’s service. Yet, it takes more than the removal of limitations on a group of people to fully integrate them into an institution’s culture, and the armed forces continue to grapple with integrating women into an institution historically designed for men.

Kara Dixon Vuic is the LCpl. Benjamin W. Schmidt Professor of War, Conflict, and Society in Twentieth-Century America at Texas Christian University and the author of The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Harvard University Press, 2019). She is writing a book about women and the draft.

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