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COMBAT OUTPOST RAHMAN KHEYL, Afghanistan — Pfc. Tasha Conger and Pfc. Tanya Redinbaugh hope their service will seem typical someday. For now, they're part of a tiny minority of female soldiers living at front-line combat positions.
That could change if a national commission gets its way. The commission told Congress last month that if a woman can show she's qualified, she ought to be allowed to take any military job.
The two women believe the change will come in time. "I don't know that there will be any hurry," Redinbaugh said. "It definitely needs to be done right." Conger and Redinbaugh are the only two women living among scores of male soldiers at this Iowa National Guard outpost.
At least a dozen times a month, the women don Kevlar helmets and bulky body armor, pick up a pistol or rifle and join patrols of areas known to contain Taliban insurgents.
If their squads are attacked, they're expected to shoot back. Conger, 21, of Seymour, Iowa, is a medic. If a comrade is wounded, she is supposed to run through fire to rescue him. Redinbaugh, 25, of Neola, Iowa, is a truck driver. She routinely drives hulking armored trucks down rutted roads in which the Taliban like to bury bombs.
But U.S. policy says women may not hold combat jobs, so by definition, these are not combat jobs.
The women are not allowed to become combat-infantry soldiers, the "trigger-pullers" who surround them here. Military rules also say female officers may not lead an infantry company, so they have no chance at an experience that can help an officer win promotion to the Army's top ranks.
Female soldiers are particularly vital in this war. Most Afghan women will not talk to a male stranger. So if an American patrol wants to glean information and goodwill from local women, it must include a female soldier.
The Army gets around its own gender-exclusion policy by declaring that Conger and Redinbaugh aren't members of the infantry unit they live with and serve with every day. They're "attached" to the unit, Charlie Company of the Iowa Guard's 1-168th Battalion.
Conger and Redinbaugh said their kind of service in this war should help convince the powers-that-be that women can perform well in combat positions.
They stressed that if the rule is changed, women should be required to meet the same standards, including physical tests men must meet. "If we weren't, we'd be ridiculed," Redinbaugh said. Such tests might be harder for women to pass, she said, but a determined, fit woman could do it.
The gender rules don't directly affect salaries. Soldiers are paid based on their rank, and everyone deployed to Afghanistan receives bonus money for war-zone duty. But the men-only rules can have practical consequences beyond the insult to women's pride.
The national commission, which included several current or retired military leaders, said one of the main problems with the current rule is it denies female officers the chance to lead an infantry company. Such a post can be a crucial step toward advancement .
Charlie Company's commander, Capt. Michael Minard , predicted that the exclusion will be lifted, and female officers eventually will gain positions like his. Women who land the job can expect resentment from old-school male soldiers, he said. "There's going to be some pushback, and they'll need to be able to handle that," he said. .
For example, he said, an Army regulation states that female soldiers must be provided with showers every few days. That was a problem during Charlie Company's first few months in Afghanistan, because the spartan outpost lacked running water. Male soldiers often went weeks without bathing, but company leaders had to ensure that Conger and Redinbaugh made it back to a bigger base so they could wash up. The women usually could find seats on supply convoys already headed to the bigger base. But the company occasionally had to send four-truck convoys out on the rough drive because Minard had to comply with the hygiene rule for the women. The drive takes up to an hour, and each trip carries the risk of a truck being blown up. "So rules like that really would have to change," Minard said.
Sgt. Shannon Osterholm, a female Guard truck driver, said she agreed that many women could not or would not want to pass tests to join an infantry unit, but hopes women will be allowed to try.
Osterholm said women can get along in the boys' club atmosphere if they develop thick skins and an off-color brand of humor. "We probably make them blush more often than they make us blush," she said of the men.