Mare Contrare, an award-winning short-story author and playwright who blogs at writesoftly.com, has always had a passionate curiosity about combat. She has embedded into Afghanistan three times, over a period of one and one-half years. She has gone into several provinces, with different factions and divisions of the armed forces, to research her book about the individuals who make up the armed forces and to explain, for civilians, what actually goes on in a combat zone. —Ed.

People forget that Memorial Day is not about barbecues and beer, nor is it about vacation time and golf. Memorial Day is about honoring the men and women who have served our country and honoring the men and women who have given their lives for our country. Personally, I cringe when I’m wished a nice Memorial Day.

In Afghanistan, as I observed these fit, smart women dressed in men’s camouflage, carrying a weapon, serving in a kinetic combat zone, I wondered what changes have occurred since the first female served our country.

Women Soldiers, Nurses, and Spies

As early as the Civil War, females, some dressed like men, went into battle, serving as soldiers, nurses, and even spies.  It is estimated that more than 400 women served in the Civil War, not counting the nurses. Dr. Mary Walker was imprisoned as a Union spy and awarded the Medal of Honor! Sixty females are known to have given their lives for our country in that war.

U.S. military nurses at a base in France, 1917.

In World War I, females were openly courted. The Navy ignored the dissenters in the War Department and recruited nearly 13,000 women into the Navy and the Marine Corps.  Women were also active in the Army’s Signal Corps. At least three nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s highest military honor, and several received the Distinguished Service Medal, our highest noncombat award; more than twenty were awarded the French Croix de Guerre. Now women could not only serve, but also be recognized and paid! But it would be 23 years before women would be considered an integral part of the U.S. military.

Several hundred women gave their lives for our country during World War I. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the Senate, urging it pass the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

In February 1946, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the preparation of legislation to make the Women’s Army Corps a permanent part of the Army. In September 1947, the bill was combined with the WAVES/Women Marines bill, and a section to include women in the Air Force was added. The bill was renamed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. President Truman signed the bill into law on June 12, 1948.

Lynda Van Devanter, who chronicled her life nursing at an Army base in Vietnam and founded the Women's Division of Vietnam Veterans for America.

In Vietnam, women were allowed on FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), serving in the same branch of service as the men. Their work—acting as nurses, assisting surgeons, holding hands, and closing eyelids of the dead—was no less hazardous than that of the men. They also crewed on Medevac flights, were information officers, assigned as support staff, and served as Donut Dollies.

President Kennedy dreamed up the American Red Cross Donut Dollies—young women, dressed in powder blue uniforms, who literally greeted the GIs as they walked off the landing zone in very hazardous conditions. They also helped assist in just about any way they were asked, even with prisoners of war. They were incredibly brave, and greatly appreciated by all the GIs who came in contact with them.

Public Law 90-130, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Nov. 8, 1967, removed promotion restrictions on women officers in the Armed Forces. Thereafter, it was possible for more than one woman in each service to hold the rank of colonel and for women to achieve general (or flag) officer rank.

Women were awarded Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Commendation Medals, and Unit Citations. Women also had the “privilege” of being POW/MIA and, in some cases, burned to death. There is no final count of the women who lost their lives in Vietnam, but 67 women have been honored with this distinction.

Enlistment qualifications became the same for men and women by order of the Secretary of the Army on October 1, 1979.

In Afghanistan:

Women in Combat-Related Military Specialties

Contrare, above, has embedded into Afghanistan three times, over a period of one and one-half years. She has gone into several provinces, with different factions and divisions of the armed forces, to research her book "Bullets in My Pocket.'

Now, with the recent news that the Army will start placing women in combat-related “Military Occupational Specialties,” women in these jobs will serve under the same conditions as men—but they will be sequestered in their own quarters, with their own showers and latrines. Usually, these quarters have combination locks on them or are actually guarded by an armed guard. Guarded not necessarily against male soldiers, just males in general. There are a lot of male civilians on bases; these include interpreters from the local population and contractors.

What has also changed is that married couples can be sent off to war together and be assigned 100 miles apart or less. In fact on FOB Shinwar in northeastern Afghanistan, the married couples are allowed to live together. I interviewed a few couples who were assigned and spending their honeymoons together in a combat zone.

One couple had a tough time during their year of living together, and their relationship was showing stress. They were both captains in the Army and had been assigned desk jobs. They lived in a two-man room, which has two beds and is so small that you can almost touch the walls with your arms extended. The female captain had to deal with the stress of her job, her husband, hormones, and the other tensions of living on a small FOB where there is virtually no place to go and no release from these pressures. Her husband did not like his wife’s serving with him, and would not do it again. He felt the same way—boxed in—with the added stress of his wife’s unhappiness. Life in a war zone can be compared to life in prison, except that you’re getting paid a little better, and if you survive you can get out or move up the command chain.

Another couple that I met did not live together and were assigned to different FOBs. They met at least once a month and had time together. They fared a lot better. But her husband was killed in action. Last Memorial Day, she was flying home, back to the U.S. with her husband, she as a passenger and he in a metal coffin in the hold of the plane.

Women are still fighting the fight, and still dying. In Iraq and Afghanistan, 139 women have been killed up to the time I am writing this. Women warriors have earned awards for valor—among them Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses, Air Medals, Bronze Stars, Combat Action Badges, and Purple Hearts.

Why Do Women Join?

Women, just like men, join the armed forces for their own individual reasons. The women who serve our country today are as smart as they’ve always been. They are  mostly poor and not able to go to college, and have small children to support. They know the hand they were dealt, and want to play. The benefits of serving in the world’s largest corporation are plenty, and as the armored ceiling is dissolved as if hit with a Fraxel laser, there are more opportunities for women than ever.

Women have always been as brave as men. Sure, some of us don’t have the musculature and stamina of some men, but where we are equal, we are equal in every way. In fact, most of the commanding officers I interviewed said on the record that they could not succeed in their mission without the female population. Women are an integral part of all theaters of combat.

So please, put aside your politics and let our voices of change remember our sisters who serve this Memorial Day and honor them and their sacrifice and thank them for a job well done.