I am doing is no greater or less than the man who is flying next to
me," the 32-year-old U.S. Army pilot told a CNN team in the
scorching Saudi Arabian desert during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But a day after the cease-fire agreement that ended the war, the
Oradell, N.J., native was killed when her helicopter hit an unlit
microwave tower, and suddenly her job did indeed capture the
attention of a nation flush with the victory of Operation Desert
Like 12 other fellow servicewomen who died during the 1991 Gulf
War, Rossi came home in a body bag to a grieving family, somber
military ceremonies and commemorations. In death, the 13 women
turned into bittersweet symbols of the long journey women in the
U.S. military have made.
In many ways, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was a watershed for
women in the U.S. military. More than 40,000 servicewomen went to
war and one out of every five women in uniform was deployed in
direct support to the Gulf War, according to the Department of
Of the 13 U.S. servicewomen killed in the 1991 Gulf War, four of
them were from enemy fire, including three servicewomen who were
killed by an Iraqi Scud missile attack. Twenty-one women were
wounded in action, and two were taken prisoners of war.
It was, according to Capt. Lory Manning (U.S. Navy retired) and
current director of the Center for Women in Uniform at the Women's
Research and Education Institute, "the largest deployment of women
to a combat theater." The number was a steep climb from the
approximately 7,000 servicewomen mostly nurses who served during
the Vietnam War.
Twelve years since the launch of Desert Storm, as hundreds of
thousands of U.S. troops head to the Persian Gulf region, experts
predict that if there is a war with Iraq this year, the number of
U.S. women serving in the combat theater would exceed the 40,000-odd
Desert Storm figure.
And with it, it would also increase the likelihood of U.S. women
in uniform being wounded, killed, or taken prisoners of war while in
the line of service.
Storming the Military Glass Ceiling
By all accounts, women in the military have come a long way, but
it's been a slow, hotly contested fight to gain the right to die in
Following their distinguished service in the 1991 Gulf War, there
was a concerted initiative to expand combat assignments for women in
uniform. In 1994, an order signed by then-President Bill Clinton
permitted women on combat ships and fighter planes.
Today, about 200,000 women make up 15 percent of the military and
experts say that in the event of a war in Iraq, women are likely to
serve in many more job positions and occupations than the 1991 Gulf
War, with the 1994 order making women eligible to apply for
approximately 92 percent of the jobs in the U.S. military.
But some experts warn that beneath the impressive array of
figures, American women in the military are still fighting a pitched
battle for gender equality and the bugle call marking the end of a
gender war in the U.S. military is a long time coming.
A 1997 study on women in the military by RAND's National Defense
Research Institute found that only 815 of the 47,544 military jobs
opened to women in 1994 were occupied by women. And in an interview
with the Washington Post in October, 1997, Sen. Olympia
Snowe, R-Maine, called "allegations that commanders have been
allowed to stonewall decisions made by the Department of Defense"
with regard to the assignment of women in combat-related positions
The Fight Over Fighting Women
Even more contentious than the failure to fill available military
positions, has been the issue of combat positions denied to women.
Although the Air Force and the Navy have opened up virtually all
combat jobs to women, servicewomen are still officially forbidden
from serving in combat on the ground.
The exclusion bars women from infantry, armored and most field
artillery units as well as special forces units among others. And
according to many experts, it imposes a limitation on potential
promotions and on how far women in the military can rise.
It's a prohibition that Robin Gerber, senior scholar at the
Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, calls an effort aimed
at "moving women back to the mess hall."
While some reports have cited opposition among top Army brass to
fully embrace the spirit of the 1994 order, Gerber says the main
assault came when "the Pentagon leveled its big guns" at DACOWITS
(Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services), a volunteer
civilian agency within the Defense Department that was founded in
1951 to fight for equal opportunity for women and to keep top
Pentagon officials apprised of the realities faced by women in the
Sisters at War
But the move to allow women in combat has met with vociferous
opposition from a number of organizations such as the
Washington-based Center for Military Readiness (CMR) and the
Virginia-based Independent Women's Forum (IWF) that have denounced
DACOWITS' initiatives to allow women to serve in combat units.
Citing a number of reasons, including the "power of the sex drive
when young women and men, under considerable stress, are mixed
together in close quarters," the IWF, for instance, calls for a
"commonsense" approach to the issue of women in combat.
"The concept of equality does not fit in combat environments,"
said Elaine Donnelly, CMR president. "I think the priority has to be
military efficiency in accomplishing the mission quickly and
effectively with minimal casualties. Women in combat units endanger
male morale and military performance."
Couching Real Fears
But while the primary fear among those who oppose women's
participation in combat rests, to a large extent, on the horror of
women being killed or captured in war, David Segal, a sociology
professor and director of the Center for Research on Military
Organization at the University of Maryland, says that several
conservative groups use the issue of military efficiency to "couch
their opposition to women's participation in the military."
Experts say that before the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon itself
fretted about a public opinion backlash if American women were
captured or killed in the war.
But many say it was a fear that largely proved unfounded. Across
the board, the grieving families of the 13 servicewomen killed
during the Gulf War expressed pride over their loved ones' heroic
And of the two women taken prisoner, Army Specialist Melissa
Rathburn-Nealy of the 233rd Transportation Company testified that
she was treated well by the Iraqis. The second female POW, Maj.
Rhonda Cornum, an Army flight surgeon, testified before a
presidential commission on women in the military that the Iraqis had
sexually molested her.
Cornum went on to serve as a colonel commanding an Army medical
unit in Tuzla during the U.S. operation in Bosnia in the mid-1990s.
And in a report in the New York Times, she explained her
delay in publicly declaring her molestation and the very brief
mention the incident received in her book She Went to War: The
Rhonda Cornum Story as a "concern" that her mistreatment would
be "blown out of proportion and would be used by those who want to
keep women out of combat."
Women in Mens Clothing
Until fairly recently, war was considered men's business, with
most generals keen to keep the horror of it away from women.
But throughout history, they have not been entirely successful.
Across the world and through the centuries, women warriors have gone
into battle with their menfolk through fair means and foul for the
love of the land, tribe or adventure.
In the 7th century, Nusaybah bint Kaab was one of the most
celebrated women warriors, who fought in many of the early Muslim
battles, including the gruesome battle of Uhud, when she helped save
the Prophet Muhammad's life. In India, Rani (queen) Laxmibai's epic
battle against the British in 1858 is widely believed to have sown
the seeds for the country's successful anti-colonial struggle.
And if Joan of Arc was France's most celebrated female warrior,
the annals of British history are crowded with the exploits of brave
women who disguised themselves as men to fight on the battlefront.
It was a pattern duplicated in America during and after the War
of Independence, when Margaret Corbin replaced her slain husband in
an artillery unit in 1776 and when Lucy Brewer disguised as George
Baker served in the War of 1812 aboard the USS Constitution.
Brewer is acknowledged as the first female Marine.
But it was World War I that posed the greatest challenge to the
military male bastion. With war moving from the battlefields into
civilian zones, women gradually worked their way into medical units
and by World War II, their position in the military was enhanced,
although women in the United States' armed services did not serve in
Nearly a million women served in the Soviet Armed Forces during
World War II, including several decorated women snipers, such as
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to tour
the United States.
Many experts believe that conservative opposition to women in
combat notwithstanding, history is on the side of fighting women.
With a growing international move to include women in combat
missions Canada, South Africa and a number of Scandinavian
countries allow women on ground combat missions the times, they
say, will simply catch up with the U.S. armed forces.
On his part, Segal dismisses arguments that the pressures of
women in the military put a greater burden on military families than
those with male military members.
"This view seems to think it's OK for men who are fathers to
leave their children," said Segal. "Military families adapt whether
male or female members are in the military. And if they can't adapt,
they get out. Family commitments are one of the major reasons for
men getting out of the military."
Many sociologists such as Segal maintain that the American
public, for the most, is supportive of women playing an enhanced
role in the military. And by all accounts, American military
families appear to support the idea of their female members in
On a blustery afternoon on March 11, 1991, as hundreds of
military men and women gathered at the Arlington National Cemetery,
Maj. Rossi's husband, John Cayton then a Chief Warrant Officer in
the U.S. Army paid a deceptively simple tribute that acknowledged
the complex polarities of Rossi's personal and professional lives.
"I prayed that guidance be given to her so that she could command
the company, so she could lead her troops in battle," he told a
somber gathering of hundreds of military men and women. "And I
prayed to the Lord to take care of my sweet little wife."