After a rocket-propelled grenade sent the Black Hawk helicopter tumbling out of the sky over Iraq, the medics got to work fast on the co-pilot, Capt. Duckworth. Standard operating procedure: cut away the desert-camo uniform before burnt fabric melds with burnt flesh. Get at the wounds. Stop the bleeding. Save what’s left.
When you show up at Walter Reed Medical Center in that kind of condition, you show up naked, with nothing except the hospital gown. So you’re given a “comfort kit,” a little backpack containing some toiletries and clothes. Duckworth awoke there around Thanksgiving 2004, a few weeks after the shootdown, to find a comfort kit waiting with slippers, a shaving kit and men’s jockey shorts.
She had to laugh.
“It was great. I don’t have feet, so I can’t wear the slippers, and you know, I just had my legs blown off, it’s not like I’m gonna shave my legs any time soon,” she chuckles. “I don’t have jockey, I’m not gonna wear men’s jockey shorts.”
Tammy Duckworth had just become the first female double amputee from Iraq, losing one leg above the knee and one below, but she had been a woman for a while already.
“They just had kits for men,” Duckworth says. “It never occurred to them to make kits for women.”
Duckworth is one of more than 282,000 American women who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during a decade of war, according to Pentagon figures. That’s more than six times the number of women deployed in the first Gulf War and more than 35 times the number sent to Vietnam.
The 207,308 women currently serving on active duty comprise some 14.5 percent of the U.S. armed forces, according to the military. While more than 2 million women have served since the Revolutionary War, some 1.9 million of them are currently living — an unprecedented generation of women at war. The number of female veterans has doubled since 1990 and is expected to skyrocket given further drawdowns in the Middle East.
They are helicopter pilots, linguists and flight nurses, mechanics, mental health administrators and homeland security-force directors, intelligence officers and combat correspondents, Ph.D.s and amputees, Purple Heart recipients and prisoners of war. Seventy-one have become generals. One, in the Army, has four stars.
Duckworth, who received the Purple Heart, is one of 868 servicewomen who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. One hundred forty-four have been killed.
Tammy Duckworth looks on as President Barack Obama departs from the White House in November 2009.
Yet while women are undeniably at war, the full extent of their roles and capabilities still isn’t formally recognized by the military brass. Today’s servicewomen perform many of the roles that official policy says they cannot. Often, their service and suffering remain ignored by or invisible to the Pentagon and the public.
“First thing we can do for women veterans is to raise the awareness that women are veterans,” says Maj. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris, director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the first African American woman to reach the rank of general in the National Guard.
Of the 1.2 million positions available throughout the military, 252,179, roughly 21 percent, are closed to women, according to a Department of Defense report to Congress ordered under the defense budget bill for fiscal year 2011. At the report’s release in February, the DOD announced plans to open 14,325 more jobs — an additional 1.2 percent of that total — slated for implementation on Monday.
READ MORE of this informative and thought-provoking report: Unseen: Trailblazing Military Women Forced To Fight For Recognition, Equal Treatment.