For years, female soldiers from the South Sound have served in harm’s way despite official limits on their front-line combat roles, which the Pentagon announced Wednesday would be lifted.
Some women have lost their lives in war. The most recent casualty was Spc. Brittany Gordon, a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade intelligence soldier who was killed in an Oct. 13 insider attack by a man wearing an Afghan uniform and a suicide vest.
Some have died while training to go to war. Capt. Anne Rockeman Montgomery was one of four Army Combat Aviation Brigade helicopter pilots killed in a Dec. 12, 2011 accident at the base south of Tacoma.
Some have been injured or wounded in acts of valor. Spc. Heidi Olson, a combat medic, was hailed as a hero by her Stryker brigade last May for treating a fellow Stryker soldier hurt in a roadside bombing, despite her own wounds.
Olson had shrapnel in her chest, burns on her face and a severe injury to her eye.
“She wanted to continue the mission to provide medical coverage to the rest of the patrol,” a commendation from her brigade says. “She had to be ordered to get on the (medical evacuation helicopter) for treatment.”
A total of 15 female service members who called Washington state home or who were assigned to military installations here have died in war zones since Sept. 11, 2001, according to News Tribune records.
Most were killed in grievously familiar ways that have taken the lives of hundreds of their male comrades: by improvised bombs, mortars or in other enemy attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Army Reserve Master Sgt. Traci Williams of Maple Valley said the traditional definition of front-line combat has blurred in recent years.
“We’re all in the front because there is no front or rear anymore,” said Williams, a 52-year-old chaplain assistant who has visited service members in forward areas in Afghanistan and Iraq. She also deployed to Kosovo and Haiti earlier in her 22-year military career.
Currently serving with a Reserve unit in Marysville, Williams started in the military as an active-duty combat signaler. She also commands the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Renton.
4,216 WOMEN AT JBLM
Lewis-McChord has at least 4,216 active-duty female service members, an Army spokesman said Wednesday; he could not confirm whether those numbers included female Air Force personnel.
The highest-ranking female soldier at the local base is Col. Theresa Schneider, commander of the 62nd Medical Brigade.
Women have had support roles in Lewis-McChord combat units ranging from the base’s three Stryker brigades to the 1st Special Forces Group.
Lifting restrictions on the jobs they can perform in combat should help them get better training for dangerous scenarios and offer them more opportunities to advance, said Washington Department of Veterans Affairs Director Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos.
“I am one of those who are just ecstatic about the fact that there are going to be more opportunites for women who want to serve in those hard military operational specialties,” she said.
Alvarado-Ramos is a retired Army command sergeant major who enlisted during the Vietnam War but could not deploy as a medic because of that era’s restrictions on women serving in combat. She ended her Army career in 1993 as the top enlisted soldier at Madigan Army Medical Center.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, also lauded Wednesday’s decision.
“This is an historic step for equality and for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation,” said Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “From the streets of Iraqi cities to rural villages in Afghanistan, time and again women have proven capable of serving honorably and bravely.”
One way the Army has used female soldiers is by assigning them jobs that men could not do without breaking cultural taboos in Muslim countries.
Women in Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division eagerly volunteered for positions in so-called “female engagement teams” for their deployment last year. The assignment gave them opportunities to get outside of their forward bases with normally all-male Stryker infantry patrols.
A News Tribune reporter last April spent time shadowing one of these teams in southern Afghanistan. The female soldiers were able to forge bonds with Muslim women and girls in a society where women do not openly interact with men, least of all male U.S. soldiers.
Williams, the Army Reserve chaplain assistant, said she supports the changes announced Wednesday as long as male and female service members are held to the same standards. She noted that women already serve in combat roles in the Israeli Army.
“I don’t want to see anything changed as far as requirements just for females,” she said, “because then you’re going to put everyone at risk.”
Alvarado-Ramos said she’s confident equal treatment will be enforced.
“The qualified person, regardless of gender, is going to be able to serve and make the grade,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly misspelled Col. Theresa Schneider's surname.
News Tribune staff writers Adam Ashton, Christian Hill and Matt Misterek contributed to this report.