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White House Watch: She died fighting

The best way to honor this warrior-mother is to end an outdated combat ban

Sunday, April 20, 2003

By Ann McFeatters

WASHINGTON - U.S. Army officials now say the American woman killed in Nasiriyah when her supply convoy was ambushed by Iraqis fought with the valor, ferocity and skill of any man.

  Ann McFeatters is National Bureau chief of the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (amcfeatters@national
, 202-662-7071).

At the end, out of ammunition, without backup, she thrust her rifle at an oncoming Iraqi soldier, before he shot and killed her.

But, legally, the 212,000 women in the military aren't permitted to be in combat on the ground.

Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, was an Army private first class. She was a Hopi Indian, one of only 56 in the U.S. military, according to the tribe. She was a divorced single mother, with two children, a son, 4, and a daughter, 3. She was a sister and a daughter and a friend.

Piestewa wanted to be a soldier, joining her high school ROTC. There are those who may say because she was a mother, she should have given up her dream and tried to find a job that would have let her stay in Tuba City, Ariz., her hometown. Others salute her for both supporting her children and following her dream.

Like most others in the Army who joined to better their lives, she didn't know, when she signed up, that she would be sent to a desert halfway around the world to help overthrow a dictator. Even if she had, who's to say it would have made a difference?

If she'd been a graduate of a military academy, with the goal of getting to the top, she would have bumped up against the glass ceiling. Because women legally can't serve in combat, they can't get the credentials needed to go all the way to the top. It's one of those Catch-22 situations.

Piestewa, her friend, Jessica Lynch, 19, the badly injured Army supply clerk and prisoner of war rescued April 1, and Shoshana Johnson, 30, an Army cook from Texas -- and single mother -- rescued just a few days ago, were all members of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company sent to Iraq. They weren't supposed to be in combat. They certainly weren't supposed to have to fight in hand-to-hand combat. They weren't supposed to become POWs. They weren't supposed to die. But neither were the scores of men who have died.

War is fickle. It kills the innocent as well as the evil. It changes lives. It changes history. It rarely goes as planned.

There is no way -- no way -- the modern military could function without women. Because we have an all-volunteer military, that is not even a debate any more. Women are as vital in the Pentagon as the oxygen that defense chief Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff breathe. The brass admits it. There is not one job women aren't capable of doing.

But, legally, women can't serve in combat, and thus their options are limited.

Lynch and Johnson are living heroes and for years will be honored in many ways, hopefully, in ways that won't shred their privacy.

Piestewa, a hero in death of Operation Iraqi Freedom, may be honored by having a mountain peak or a freeway or maybe both named after her. She will have a place in the women's military memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Her final resting place, Moenkopi Village on Hopi land near Tuba City, will draw visitors remembering her as warrior and in her new status as cloud person.

But the best way to honor her would be to remove the prohibition on women in combat. It's an outmoded vestige of a bygone era that only hurts women who want to serve by keeping them from getting the promotions they should have a chance to earn.

The bans on women flying combat aircraft and serving on combat ships have long been repealed. It would be better if there were no more wars, but as long as there are, the country is better for having women pilots and sailors.

In an all-volunteer military, removing the 1948 prohibition on women in combat would merely legitimize what is already happening -- women are in all aspects of the military and their careers should not be stalled because of their gender.

Ending the ban on women in combat roles also would do a lot to change the military for the better. For one thing, it would mean less sexual harassment; as many as two-thirds of women in the military have experienced some form of harassment. More female officers would squelch that climate.

Life is hard enough. Society should stop putting more obstacles in the way of the brave women, like Piestewa, who yearn to go as far as they are able and give up far more than most people ever will.

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