A Soldier's Life: Women in the U.S. Military

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  November eleventh is Veterans Day in the United States.  The holiday honors people who served in the military.  And that brings us to our subject this week: women in the military.


In two thousand four, Martha McSally became the first woman to command a fighter squadron in the United States Air Force.  Lieutenant Colonel McSally commands twenty-seven aircraft and more than sixty crew members.

The A-Ten fighter planes provide close support for ground troops.  They also perform search-and-rescue operations in areas of combat.  The squadron has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Colonel McSally is one of more than two hundred thousand women in the United States military.  They are in all of the services: Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.

For many years, women in the military served mostly as nurses.  Today, they do many other kinds of work as well.  Women have reached some of the highest positions in the military.  But they are still barred from taking part in ground combat.

Yet more than forty women have been killed in the war in Iraq.  Hundreds of others have been wounded.  The war began in March of two thousand three. In all, more than two thousand American service members have died.

The dead include Pamela Osbourne.  Last month, two rockets hit the camp in Baghdad where she served as an Army supply sergeant.  She was taking supplies to another soldier when she was killed.

Sergeant Osbourne was born in Jamaica thirty-eight years ago.  She was married and the mother of three children.  She joined the Army in two thousand one.  She was sent to Iraq about seven months ago.

Pamela Osbourne had recently met one of her major goals in life.  She had become an American citizen.


In nineteen seventy-three, the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam.  The Vietnam War ended.  So did the American draft.  Without a draft, the military could no longer require young men to serve.  The services needed volunteers.

More jobs opened in the military for women, and many joined.  Military service offered a chance to learn a trade or profession and, in some cases, to see the world.

The women volunteers were following a historic tradition of service to the nation.

The American Revolution for freedom from Britain began in seventeen seventy-five.  Civilian women volunteered as nurses.  Women did so again in the eighteen sixties during the Civil War.  Women also acted as spies during those wars.

The United States entered World War One in nineteen seventeen.  About thirty thousand American women joined the military.  Most were nurses.  But some had administrative jobs as female yeomen, so-called yeomanettes, in the Naval Reserve and Coast Guard.

A history of women in the Coast Guard says a few apparently served at the headquarters building in Washington.  Nineteen-year-old sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker are said to have been the first women to wear the uniform of the Coast Guard.


In the nineteen forties, the military greatly increased the number of servicewomen and the jobs they could hold during World War Two.  At first, many people opposed the idea.  But as the war continued, it became clear that the nation needed women to perform more jobs so more men could fight in combat.

The armed forces accepted almost four hundred thousand women.  In nineteen forty-three, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was renamed the Women's Army Corps.  Its members served overseas.  Later, women in the Navy and Coast Guard also went overseas.

Some women in the services were taken prisoner during World War Two.  Others were killed.

Women received military honors and the praise of their commanders.  Even those who had opposed women in military service joined in that praise.

Women continued to serve in a number of non-combat positions.  Eight women died in military service in Vietnam.  Over the years, women have gotten closer and closer to the fighting.  In nineteen eighty-nine, almost eight hundred servicewomen provided support for the American operation in Panama.  Some piloted Blackhawk helicopters that came under fire.

Women piloted airplanes in the Persian Gulf War in nineteen ninety-one.  And they did so again in a military action over Iraq in nineteen ninety-eight.  Women also served in the operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

And now they are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But there are still limits on the jobs they are permitted to do.


A strengthened economy and a time of war have meant a harder time finding young men to join the military.  This has meant that servicewomen have been given more kinds of jobs.  Some of these can bring them into danger.

For example, both men and women have been transporting supplies and providing medical aid to fighting troops in Iraq.  These jobs cannot be done far away from the fighting.

Lawmakers in Congress have been trying to further limit how and where women can serve in areas of conflict.  Such efforts do not please women who say they want to take the same risks as men.


Retired Air Force officer Karen Johnson is an official of the National Organization for Women, the activist group called NOW.  She says serving in the military is a right of American citizenship.  When this right is limited, she says, a woman's citizenship is limited.

But Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness opposes placing women in dangerous military jobs.  The center is a policy organization.

Ms. Donnelly points to studies that say women have physical limitations that should prevent their serving in combat.  She says women soldiers do not have an equal chance to survive - or to help other soldiers survive.

Two recently published books tell two different stories of women who served in Iraq.

One is by Janis Karpinski.  She was the Army general who commanded military police at prisons in Iraq.  These included the Army Reserve soldiers who guarded the Abu Ghraib Prison near Baghdad.

Some have received prison sentences for mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  Ms. Karpinski became the highest-level officer to be punished in connection with the case.  She left the service in July after being reduced from a brigadier general to a colonel.

Her book is called "One Woman's Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story."  Ms. Karpinski says she was unfairly blamed for conditions beyond her control.  She also tells of her difficulties as a rising woman officer in the Army.

Another former member of the Army, Kayla Williams, wrote a book called "Love My Rifle More Than You."  The name is taken from a marching song.  Ms. Williams was an Arabic translator in Iraq.  She says her book describes what it is like to be young and female in the Army.  One reviewer called it "a frank, shocking and honest look at life in the military."

Lori Piestewa was a private first class in the Army.  In two thousand three, she became the first American woman to die in Iraq.  She also became the first Native American woman known to have been killed in a foreign war.

Lori Piestewa was a single mother from Arizona with two young children.  Her father and grandfather had also served in the Army.

She was killed after a group of supply trucks took a wrong turn and came under attack near the Iraqi city of Nasariyah.  Her friend Private Jessica Lynch was taken prisoner, but later rescued from a hospital.

Jessica Lynch became famous when the military presented her as a hero.  Later, she said the truth was that her gun would not even fire.  But she said Lori Piestewa did fight back, and died trying to protect the other soldiers.

Now, there is a mountain in Phoenix, Arizona, that has been named Piestewa Peak in her honor.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson.  Caty Weaver was our producer.  I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm Steve Ember.  Our programs are online at voaspecialenglish.com.  Please join us again next week for another THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.