Women in the Military Face Increasing Opportunity and Risk

By Adeboyejo, Betsy | The Crisis, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

Women in the Military Face Increasing Opportunity and Risk


Adeboyejo, Betsy, The Crisis


When the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company took a wrong turn in Nasiriyah and wound up as prisoners of war, their fate became one of the biggest stories to come out of the war in Iraq. The fact that there were three women among their ranks - Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa of Tuba City, Ariz., Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch of Palestine, W.Va., and Spec. Shoshana Nyrce Johnson of El Paso, Texas - has brought attention to the expanding role of women in the military.

Piestewa, 23, a Hopi Indian and mother of two, was the first U.S. servicewoman killed in Iraq; Lynch, 19, was rescued from an Iraqi hospital; and Johnson, a 30-year-old single mother, was rescued along with six other American POWs near Samarra.

Women are serving in greater numbers and are also closer to the frontlines of combat than they have been in previous wars. Women were restricted from participating in direct combat in the first Gulf War in 1991. But since 1994, more than 90 percent of service positions, which includes most combat assignments, have been open to women.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, there are about 140,000 women serving as officers and enlisted personnel in the U.S. military. Women represent 16 percent of the enlisted population in the Army, 14 percent in the Navy, 19 percent in the Air Force and 6 percent in the Marines. Black women represent 41.7 percent of enlisted women in the Army - the largest percentage of any other group.

"The Army is a great place for women, [particularly] African American women, to serve their country. Regardless of its warts, the Army has done a Herculean job to ensure that people are advanced on merit, not gender or race," says Brig. Gen. Velma Richardson, who has served nearly 30 years in the Army, where she is the highest-ranking African American woman.

Since the American Revolution (1775-1783) women have served in the military in traditional roles as nurses and performing domestic duties, but also as spies. During the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, it is believed that some women disguised themselves as male soldiers to fight on the frontlines. There is no documentation of Black women's military service in the Revolutionary War, but according to officials from the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, they may have served alongside Black men. …

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