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Deaths raises questions about role in combat

The deaths of three women - two Marines and one sailor - and the injury of 11 other female Marines in an attack in Iraq last week not only raises questions about the role of women in combat, but suggests that the U.S. military may be guilty of willful denial, if not strategic negligence.

Put another way, American women in Iraq are dying unnecessarily.

And no, I'm not suggesting that men should die necessarily, but that women who are not supposed to be in or near combat are being placed in situations that increase the likelihood of death or injury.

Obviously, women soldiers, sailors and Marines are sometimes injured or killed because they are unavoidably "in harm's way." War is imperfect after all. But other times, harm's way is avoidable, as was surely the case June 23 when a convoy carrying mostly women was attacked in Fallujah by a suicide car bomber and gunmen.

While the women's deaths may not be more tragic than others' deaths - certainly not to those who have buried their sons - we are left wondering why the women were in places where they could be so easily killed.

The convenient response is that this war has no clear "front lines," that military women are bound to get caught in the crossfire. In Thursday's case, the women were going to a checkpoint where they were to search Iraqi women out of respect for Muslim sensitivities. Every vehicle and person entering Fallujah is searched as the U.S. tries to insure that insurgents are kept out.

Having women instead of men search women makes perfectly good sense, but why American women? Why not raise our exquisite sensitivity to the next level and employ Iraqi women to search Iraqi women?

The nonprofit Center for Military Readiness' Elaine Donnelly, who has put that question to the Pentagon, said even though Marine women were authorized to be at the checkpoints, the Pentagon apparently didn't adequately think through the implications of placing women at such vulnerable posts.

Some observers wonder whether the convoy was targeted specifically because it was known to be carrying women. More buck for the bang, if you're a suicide bomber. If the goal is to undermine U.S. will and commitment to the war, the twisted mind might think, 'What better way than to kill their women?'

Donnelly is more critical of Army procedures that have placed women at high risk in ways that are not officially authorized. She and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, last month questioned the Army policy of "collocating" women with its infantry and armor land combat battalions. Again, translated, this means putting women who perform various auxiliary, noncombat roles near enough to combat as to be in harm's way.

Which is clearly against Pentagon policy. To change the policy - or to seek an exception - requires that the secretary of defense notify Congress 30 legislative days (or about three month's real time) in advance. No such notice has ever been given, Donnelly said. Instead, the Army has been assigning women to forward-support companies that previously were all men while the Pentagon rearranges organizational charts to make the rules seem inapplicable.

Donnelly is blunt in her appraisal that this sleight of hand is not only subterfuge, but unfair to women who enlist in the military in the belief they won't be near combat. Jessica Lynch, where are you?

To reiterate, the Marines and the Army are not one and the same. The Marines apparently were following rules when the female Marines were attacked by the suicide bomber. The Army, on the other hand, is bending rules to send women where men are supposed to be.

All of which forces the tough question: Do we really want to put our women at this level of risk if it's not necessary? The rules against placing women in combat still stand, but the slope is looking a bit slippery. As the lines between combat and noncombat become blurred, so do the roles of men and women in the military.

The battle for civilization may not be lost in Fallujah or Kabul, after all. When we decide to willingly put our nation's mothers - whether future or of the moment - in harm's way, we may already have lost the war.

Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, welcomes comments via e-mail at kparker@kparker.com . Her column appears on Friday.