Women in Combat Already Here

One soldier's story of bravery casts light on current combat situation.


The question facing the Department of Defense is not whether women will serve in combat roles, but whether the Pentagon will train them for it.

Combat in Iraq and Afghanistan yields stories from both sexes about women who broke out of their prescribed roles to address the combat thrust upon them.

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Paigh Bumgarner joined the Virginia National Guard in 2000, and deployed to Iraq as an active duty soldier in the years after Sept. 11, 2001.

"We got hit. Hard. Several times," says Bumgarner. "Women were shot. Males were shot. There is one thing I have to say out there: It's not that a male comrade isn't going to help another male who's injured because a female is injured."

"It really is based on the severity of the injury," she says.

Bumgarner's Nuclear/Biological/Chemical team was reclassified as a transportation unit for her 2005 deployment to Balad, a Shiite town north of Baghdad. Their existing equipment allowed them to run security for convoys as a "gun truck company," she says.

The retired sergeant served as a gunner, driver, and truck commander during her year-long tour with the unit comprised of some trained infantrymen. On one mission roughly 10 months in, she was serving as the assistant convoy commander when her unit was attacked by a well-coordinated insurgent enemy.

"We were ambushed," says Dan Glass, who served with Bumgarner before retiring from the National Guard in 2006 as a sergeant. "We had been ambushed by what I found out later was about 30 insurgents.

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They shot out the radiator of Glass' vehicle while he was driving roughly 55 miles per hour.

"That's when it hit me," he says. "These guys knew what they were doing."

One of the troopers was killed and a many were injured from five different improvised explosive devices. Among the casualties was the convoy's commander. That's when Bumgarner took over.

"She took control of the situation," says Glass. She put the dead soldier in a body bag, called for med-evac and organized defensive maneuvers. "It takes a very strong person to do that."

Bumgarner earned a Bronze Star medal and Combat Action Badge, but her story is not unique. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told a group of reporters at a press conference last week about when he arrived in Iraq in 2003 as a division commander. He got into his vehicle and asked the driver where he was from, then slapped the turret gunner on the thigh and asked for a name. A woman swung down and said, "I'm Amanda."

"I said, 'Oh, OK.'" Dempsey said. "So a female turret gunner is protecting a division commander. It's from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it."

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"Combat has changed dramatically," Bumgarner says. "Especially with IEDs and gunners on the road with gun trucks."

As the military debates whether standards should change for training women, she recounts a usual encounter she'd have with head-strong comrades who claimed she couldn't change the 60-pound tires used on her vehicles. She'd turn around and ask them to try to pick it up.

It takes three people to get that job done, she says, and points to the "big guys" who lost control when bullets began to fly.

"Guys are already at this level of 'You're a guy, and you have to man up.' Women constantly have to prove themselves before they get that respect," she says.

Glass points out Bumgarner's consistent desire to meet the male standard for physical training exercises. That came in handy when she packed extra t-shirts for the minimalists in her unit who needed an extra.

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In a combat situation, sometimes women rise above the male standard. Bumgarner explains women are preferred turret gunners because their small frame allows greater maneuverability in the cramped space.

"I had my doubts about having a women as a gunner," says Glass. "I was surprised several times, by both males and females. Males you would think would excel at this would fail, and women you saw as weak or feeble excelled. My generalizations I had going in to it were thrown out the window."