Should Women Participate in Combat?  Is this Still an Issue?

By Diane M. Grassi

I’d give anything to have 10 minutes with Sam now. But I don’t think she should be limited by politics. It’s equality and it’s choice. Those are the words of Bob Huff, who is the father of 18-year-old Army Pfc. Sam Williams Huff of Tucson, AZ. Sam is one of 37 servicewomen who have been killed thus far in the War in Iraq among the 15,000 female troops serving there.

She died on April 17, 2005 serving with the 504th Military Police Battalion when a roadside bomb hit her Army Humvee.

Huff’s job included backing up soldiers during enemy roundups, guarding an Iraqi police station and chauffeuring dignitaries to and from the dangerous roads leading to and from the airport in Baghdad…..


Sam Huff had big plans too. She was going to serve five years in the Army, earn a Master’s Degree and work towards becoming an FBI profiler. Her father Bob, a retired police officer in Tucson, AZ, is married to Maggie Williams Huff, who served as an air-traffic controller with the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War. Neither parent ever discouraged their daughter’s enlistment and service in Iraq and both are most proud of her bravery albeit her ultimate sacrifice. Army Pfc. Sam Williams Huff is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

On June 16, 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, also with the military police serving on behalf of the Kentucky National Guard, became the first female soldier since World War II to be awarded the Silver Star, the third highest award given for gallantry. The last woman to receive the Silver Star was Mary Louise Roberts, who was an Army nurse. She served in a field hospital during the Battle of Anzio in Italy. Roberts ignored orders to take cover as shrapnel was decimating her surgical tent. She instead remained in order to help her boys. Hester’s medal however is the first ever awarded a female GI while fighting an enemy.

While caught in an ambush, south of Baghdad, Sgt. Hester and her unit were patrolling midday on March 25, 2005 near Salman Pak, Iraq, south of Baghdad, when a convoy of 20 civilian trucks nearby came under attack. Hester and her unit, the 617th Military Police Company, sped three Humvees through weapons fire, turning up a dirt road to cut off the attack by more than 30 insurgents armed with assault rifles, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, according to the military.

Sgt. Hester and her soldiers stopped their Humvee vehicles while firing at the attackers with automatic rifles and grenades until they found cover behind a bunker. Hester and another soldier ran into a trench, firing at three or four fighters just 150 feet away. When all was said and done after the 90-minute firefight, the Americans killed 27 insurgents and wounded or captured seven others. Hester’s award citation states, Her actions saved the lives of numerous convoy members. She additionally gave medical attention to several others. Another female soldier in Hester’s squad, Specialist Ashley Pullen, was issued a Bronze Star, also for taking part in the attacks and providing medical care to her fellow soldiers.

Meanwhile as the face of the military has now included female faces in its portrait of the bravery of its troops’ serving in the War in Iraq, and especially in 2005, on Capitol Hill the debate raged on this past May for two weeks over whether to scrap nearly 22,000 positions now available to women in the Army.

The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives sought legislation in the Defense Authorization Bill (H.R. 1815) for fiscal year 2006, to limit women soldiers’ role in forward support units for combat personnel. Officially in January 2005 the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division started deployment of female soldiers as forward support companies for combat units, which precipitated the call for the amendment of the House bill.

At issue is the 1994 Pentagon policy that bars women from engaging in direct ground combat units below the brigade level or in the front lines. Yet women have been used in expanded roles in the War on Terror in both Afghanistan and Iraq partially due to a shortage of active-duty recruits, as many of these roles are filled by Army reservists and members of the National Guard. As Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), believes that the Pentagon violated its own policy. Hunter wanted his proposed amendment to prohibit the assignment of female soldiers to Forward Support Companies (FSC).

Lt. Gen James L. Campbell, director of the Army staff, in a letter to Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) communicated that an effort to eliminate women from direct ground combat’ would ban women from filling roles in certain support units ultimately wiping out the 22,000 Army jobs and that the Armed Services Committee was applying a narrow interpretation of the Pentagon’s policy. Female soldiers provide infantry, armor and artillery units with the necessary equipment, ammunition, maintenance, food and other supplies in combat zones. Leading Army groups, top military officials and Democrats and other Republicans worked in concert to defeat the amendment, which according to a letter signed by 27 Democrats to Hunter would tie the hands of military commanders in a time of war and undercut recruiting and careers of women in addition to being confusing and detrimental to units by sending the wrong message to all troops presently serving under fire.

Adding to the confusion is the ever-present lack of clear battlefield boundaries as Iraq is a guerilla war. Roadside bombs and grenades explode, regardless of gender. And what are considered traditional roles women are primarily performing, which are serving in supply units, with the military police and as medic teams, are just as exposed to attack as the infantry units. The definition of combat units includes infantry, armor, Special Forces, field artillery and combat engineers.

But in a strange twist, with the Democrats rallying with the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the amendment to H.R. 1815 itself was amended on May 26, 2005 with decisions regarding the role of women in combat zones left up to the Pentagon.  However the passed defense authorization bill includes the requirement that the Secretary of Defense review implementation of the 1994 Pentagon policy on how it assigns jobs to women in combat zones in accord with the 1994 policy. Secretary Rumsfeld must report to the Congress on the review by March 2006.

Additionally, the time required by the Department of Defense to advise the Congress was extended to 60 days from 30 days when assigning women to units such as infantry, armor and artillery. The proposed Senate Defense spending bill does not address the issue of the roles of women in the military and it is not expected to arise there when final legislation is expected to pass this July.

Says Bob Huff, Every time I start feeling sorry for myself I think, there are about 1,600 other parents feeling the same thing. It doesn’t make a difference whether their kids are young or old, male or female.


Diane M. Grassi is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected]



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