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Saturday, July 19

Lynch may affect perception of women in combat

By Jean Tarbett | Huntington Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W. Va. - Paula Wallace gave her sister an order.

``Don't you dare volunteer for anything,'' she told her. ``Nothing.''

But the response she got from her 27-year-old identical twin, Stephanie Hamilton, wasn't as absolute as she'd have liked.

``I'll try,'' Hamilton said. Not good enough.

``I can just see her volunteering to go out in the convoy. She's real gung-ho,'' Wallace said of her sister, an Army technician in an ear, nose and throat unit at a hospital in Kuwait. ``When I have slow times at work, I'll think about her. I wonder what she's doing right now. I'm always thinking about leaving a message on her answering machine.''

Thousands of families have gone through the same struggle since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, feeling the helplessness known to anyone close to a soldier overseas and, for some, the concern and protectiveness they could only feel for a sister, daughter or wife.

As former POW Jessica Lynch prepares to return home to West Virginia Tuesday - after more than three months of treatment and physical and occupational therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center - the impact of her story on the future of women in the military has yet to be crafted.

Few bother to argue the fact that when Marines removed the injured supply clerk from an Iraqi hospital, the nation leapt in a moment of unity and hope in the war effort. Few could deny that Lynch's pretty, girl-next-door image has become one of, if not the most recognizable face of the war. But the fallout for the ever-expanding role of women in the military, and particularly women in combat, has yet to carve itself into history.

Some argue that the injuries she suffered after her 507th maintenance company was ambushed are a testimony to women's frailty. Some argue that her survival proves the contrary.

``I don't think we know which way this will go. It's too soon to say,'' said Frances Hensley, women's historian from Marshall University who has been studying coverage of Lynch and trying to piece together themes. ``We still don't know what happened in her capture or in her rescue, so I think it's inappropriate at this time to try and figure out her meaning in this context.

``As a historian, I'm really having a difficult time writing this article because there's no historical distance. We do not have the information on what happened - no documentation, and she has given no interviews.''

The way America has embraced Lynch indicates how people are more accepting of women in the service, if not in combat, than they were even 10 years ago, said Edwina Pendarvis, a professor at Marshall University who is working on a book about Appalachian women soldiers throughout American history with Jim Gifford.

``The first big change was with the first Gulf War. There seems to be more solidarity among the troops between men and women.''

According to the Department of Defense, the number of women in the service grew by 30,000 to 212,266 in the past decade. Their representation rose from less than 11 percent to 15 percent of the nation's 1.4 million troops.

A turning point for women in the military was in 1967, when a 2 percent cap was removed for women's military involvement, and when a ceiling on the highest grade a woman could achieve was repealed, according to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.

``Women have always played an active role in war,'' said Gifford, chief executive officer and senior editor for the Jesse Stuart Foundation, based in Ashland, Ky. ``In recent times, the terrible experience that young Jessi Lynch had has alerted Americans to this fact, but it's been true throughout history.

``Jessi Lynch put a face on it. She becomes a living representative and theme. But you're going to find a lot of Jessi Lynches throughout our history.''

Increases in acceptance of female soldiers could be partly related to how overall views of women have changed. It could be a proud statement about the worth of women as individuals, Pendarvis said.

``Maybe people felt that with the publicity of the Taliban and women not being treated equally there, maybe we've taken more pride in and respect for individuals, whether men or women.''

Phil Parlock, who has a daughter and son in the West Virginia National Guard, sat and cried when Lynch was brought from the Iraqi hospital.

``I could see my daughter in that situation,'' he said. ``I cried when she was captured, and I cried equally when she was rescued. I could identify with her parents.

``It was one of the most upbeat things of the war to get her back. In actuality, her capture and rescue may have empowered women who want to be in combat because this came out reasonably well. I think it may have made people more accepting of women in combat. But I don't.''

If women get in a position where they need to know how to defend themselves, they should know how, but they shouldn't purposely be put in that position, said Parlock, a Barboursville father of 10 children.

His son Philip, 20, is an intelligence analyst with the 2nd/ 19th Special Forces unit at Kenova. His daughter Pamela, 19, is a truck driver with the 1257th transportation group. She's now stationed at West Point, filling in for a deployed unit there.

There's a chance both could go overseas. The concern for a daughter's welfare in war would have to be a little more gripping than for a son's, he said. That's human nature.

``I worry every time I hear about these suicide bombers and sneaky ambushes, the unconventional war, where our guys are just getting killed,'' Parlock said. ``In a regular war, I would feel comfortable that she'd be alright. Now it's kind of funny, but I'm much more concerned than when it's a full blown war. But I still hope to see her get sent over to do some humanitarian aid. It would be a good experience for her. The Guard serves primarily in domestic assistance. She'd be serving humanity, the country and she'd be reasonably safe.''

Safety isn't much of a guarantee for anyone in today's warfare, Wallace said. In today's warfare, there really are no front lines, putting everyone at risk, she said.

``If you're over there, you're over there,'' Wallace said. ``You're at risk wherever you are. Anything could be dropped in or pushed out.

``I don't think women ought to be in combat just because of the way we're built,'' she said.

Wallace said her 125-pound frame just won't easily be able to carry a 300-pound man from danger.

``They should not be in infantry or ground war,'' she said. ``But I don't think there's a problem with women serving as support.''

Females have the grit, but not the physical composition for it, she said.Wallace knows. She was deployed in Operation Joint Endeavor, stationed in Hungary as an administrative specialist in an ammunition unit.

``The females picked up the slack of the males in basic training,'' he said. ``Females have to work harder. You're keeping up with (men) physically, and they're keeping up with you mentally.''

When it comes to the arguments of sexual harassment, ``It's all how you carry yourself,'' Wallace said. ``You have to be extremely confident in all your abilities, including physical and intellectual. You have to show that you can do it - dig a foxhole, shoot your M-16 every time by yourself. Ask any woman in the military - you really have to have a confidence factor.''

Wallace said she didn't know what she was putting her family through when deployed until her sister was sent to the Middle East in March.

In the first few months, she was worried.

``I heard from her a week and a half after the war started,'' Wallace said. ``She said things were flying overhead and she had to run for a bunker every five minutes.''

It has since calmed down, despite the fact that Hamilton has seen soldiers in conditions that won't easily be blocked from her mind, her sister said.

Paul Hamilton is the twins' grandfather but raised the girls, who are 1994 graduates of the former Vinson High School.

He hears from his granddaughter overseas about once a month.

``In her last letter, she said it was 126 degrees the one day and when she went to take a shower, the water was 90 degrees or better,'' Hamilton said. ``That's almost hot enough to cook.''

He said he signed the papers for her when she wanted to join 10 years ago.

``That's what she wanted to do,'' Hamilton said. ``I was in World War II. It's just one of the things you do.''

Lynch was doing her job, just like every other soldier, when she captured the media's, then the nation's attention, Pendarvis said.

When she was found alive, supporters and non-supporters of the war could agree on at least one thing, Pendarvis said.

``Because she is so young and a woman, she was a rallying point,'' Pendarvis said. ``Everybody agreed that they didn't want anything bad to happen to her, even more so than a man because we still think of women as more vulnerable, whether we should or not. Even people like myself who don't support the war wanted her to be OK.

``And I do think people see women in war now as being as courageous as men. They may not see them as being as competent, but they do see them as courageous, thanks to her.''