In late October, a bomb tore through a team of American Special Operations troops on a raid against an enemy target in Kandahar province. The blast killed three, including a young female officer, Lt. Ashley White, who was attached to the elite troops during the strike and died at their side.
The United States formally bars women from ground combat—a prohibition in place for decades because the Pentagon believed that they lacked the requisite physical strength and that Americans weren’t ready to see female troops come home in coffins. But that ban is breaking down. Women who pass a rigorous selection process are now being deployed to Afghanistan to serve with Rangers and Special Forces teams. Later this month, female sailors will begin bunking on submarines. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says that women should be allowed to try out for elite Navy SEAL units, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a crowd of ROTC cadets last year that he expected female troops to move increasingly into other Special Operations detachments.
The result? Women are fighting the nation’s wars like never before—and paying the highest price for doing so. More than 150 female troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 100 of them killed in combat. Those numbers are almost certain to rise as more women take part in dangerous missions. During the Vietnam War, by contrast, just eight female troops died, most of them in helicopter crashes. “This is a kind of wave where we’re seeing a clear and significant expansion of women’s roles in the military,” said Nancy Duff Campbell, the copresident of the National Women’s Law Center.
The military is still far from gender-blind. A 1993 rule cleared the way for women to fly attack helicopters and warplanes and to serve on Navy combat vessels. But the major war-fighting vessels—aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, for instance—are still commanded exclusively by male officers. Female troops serve alongside elite Rangers and Special Forces, but it’s not clear when (or whether) women will be allowed to join their ranks. Legislative attempts to overturn the ban on women serving in infantry, armor, and other ground combat units have consistently failed. Because combat experience typically dictates an officer’s career prospects, women have little chance to run a service branch or chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff any time soon.
Nevertheless, because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women are taking part in combat in all but name. The military has faced persistent troop shortages in linguistics, intelligence, and bomb disposal—areas with disproportionate numbers of women. Senior generals, desperate for experts to help units in the field, have evaded the congressionally mandated prohibitions on women in combat by “attaching” female troops to combat groups rather than formally “assigning” them. But Iraq and Afghanistan feature guerrilla wars with no fixed front lines, so female troops driving supply trucks on ostensibly noncombat missions have regularly been attacked. In the summer of 2005, for instance, a car bomb rammed into a U.S. convoy in Falluja, killing three female Marines and wounding a dozen others.
Because of the local cultures, female troops have proved indispensible in Iraq and Afghanistan. Norms there make it impossible for male troops to frisk women—or even to converse at length with them. So commanders in Anbar province set up “Lionesses,” small teams of female Marines who search women or question them about militants in their midst. An even larger effort is under way in Afghanistan, where female Cultural Support Teams operate alongside the Rangers and Special Forces to tap local women for usable intelligence. Two teams, 62 women in total, deployed to Afghanistan early this year; a third starts training soon; the Pentagon hopes to have roughly two dozen of the teams operating by 2016. “We’re seeing the most significant changes since the opening of combat aviation and combat ships to women in the early 1990s,” said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who runs the Women in the Military Project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute.
That expanding role has attracted far less attention than the reversal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but it will have a far greater impact on the future of the armed forces. Gay troops are thought to account for less than 10 percent of the military. Women account for at least 15 percent of the active-duty force and a higher proportion of Reserve and National Guard units; military demographers believe that women will account for at least 25 percent of the overall military within the next decade. Women also enjoy increasing prominence throughout the armed forces: The Army named its first female four-star general this year, and a female general commands the Marine Corps training base at South Carolina’s Parris Island. Female generals and admirals hold an array of senior posts in the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard.
Ashley White, the 24-year-old lieutenant who was killed in Kandahar, belonged to a Cultural Support Team assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, a storied unit that has been in Afghanistan since 2001. It was her first overseas tour, and she left behind a husband, parents, a twin sister, and a brother. In a family statement read during a memorial service at a packed church in their native Ohio, the Whites said that their daughter’s physical and mental fitness explained “why she was selected to work alongside the Rangers and why they welcomed her as one of their own.”
This article appears in the November 5, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.