02/04/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

Getting It Right

"Women are already on our battlefields being killed and wounded and should have the rewards as well as the risks." - Joe Galloway, war correspondent, the only civilian to receive a medal for Valor in the Vietnam War

I wrote the best-selling 365 Days about the physical and mental wounds of the Vietnam War during the two years that I was assigned to the Army Hospital at Camp Zama, Japan. I added the chapter "Joan" about an Army nurse whose surgical hospital had been overrun by a Viet Cong sapper team and had somehow managed to survive, though severely wounded.

The truth was that I had added that story only at the last minute. I had always felt as I was writing the book that something important was being left out of the manuscript. I finished the book while I was still at Zama and luckily it took so long to write that getting ready to go back to the States I finally realized what was wrong. There were no women in the book. How could I write about Vietnam and leave out any mention of the women who had been put at risk? It was either stupidity; but most likely it simply male blindness. It is the story that anchors the book in both time and space and may have added to the book's relevance and continuing success even decades later.

I have no idea what happened after Joan was evacuated back to the States. I can only assume that being the kind of woman she was -- no one ever heard her complain -- that she did get on with her life, though with the quality of orthopedic surgery available back in the late 1960s I am sure she still limps and when someone asks why, she probably answers, "A motorcycle accident," and says nothing about 'Nam -- not that she was there and certainly nothing about almost being killed way back in 1968. That chapter though was clearly ahead of its time.

It would take another ten years for the Vietnam Memorial to be built with the names of those 55,022 along with the names of the 68 women killed etched into the black marble -- though the Memorial website warns that the number of women killed in Nam had been most likely been under reported-and an additional decade before a statue of the three nurses comforting a wounded solder to be placed on the Memorial grounds.

I was unaware until recently of the rich and uncompromising literature on women in our wars and what they have endured and what they had accomplished that has for the most part has gone unnoticed. Some of the most moving accounts are from interviews and books on the landing at Anzio during World War II written by the nurses who endured weeks of working in a hospital set up on the beaches under direct fire from the German Artillery in the hills surrounding the landing zone. The bravery and the pain in these remembrances rival the pain and bravery of Bernard Fall's book on the French involvement in Vietnam, Hell in a Very Small Place.

But there is an even richer and more profound literature out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The book that should not be missed is John Witmer's Sisters in Arms. Here is a father who had no idea of the real dangers that his daughters would face when they joined his state's National Guard that would be used to fill the personnel gap in a nation that for political reasons had abolished the draft.

One of John's three daughters, the youngest, was manning a 50-caliber machine gun in the turret of an armored personal carrier when she was hit by a sniper. The autopsy report that Mr. Winter obtained months after his daughter's death stated that the bullet had entered her chest, passing directly through her heart, killing her instantly. But what startled him as much as the death of his daughter was his discovery i that three other armored vehicles in the convoy in which his daughter had been killed had women in the turrets manning the machine guns.

And there is Leigh Ann Hester. Sgt. Hester was the first woman to receive the Silver Star for valor since the Second World War. At the age of 23, with a handful of other Kentucky National Guardsmen, she fought off over fifty insurgents armed with AK-47s, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Sgt. Hester killed three insurgents and with her team saved the supply column from destruction. What had gone unreported was that Sgt. Hester was a member of the 617 Military Police Company of the Kentucky Guard whose major duty before being sent to Iraq had been crowd control at the Kentucky Derby.

Ten percent of the one and a half million troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are women. But it is not foolish, indifferent or stupid as so many of the detractors of women being assigned to combat units would have us believe that has forced the Military to put so many women in harms way; it is simply necessity. Neither the Army or the Marines nor the Navy or Air Force could function much less fight without these hundreds of thousands women to fill the ranks and make the fight.

Napoleon famously remarked, "What is history but a fable agreed upon?" Well, time to rid ourselves of the fables involving women in combat. First of all, size doesn't matter.

The truth is that the military has never been concerned about male recruits being too small. Small size in the soldiers, sailors and marines has never bothered the Army, the Navy or Marines in the past so why should it bother them now.

And the issue of certain types of physical fitness separating men from women is another straw dog. Anyone who has watched a girl's volleyball team can see the difference between a requirement and a standard. The Marines, who view themselves as the most hard-bodied service, pushed by the new rules assigning women to combat units, are currently in the process of adjusting their fitness standards to needs rather then some arbitrary requirement. Women in tank crews have to be capable of removing fifty pound projectiles from ammunition racks to the main gun in a sustained manner rather than having to do have twenty pull ups or be able to throw a hand grenade 15 meters, because if less then 10 meters everyone around the marine will be killed, rather then simply having to do a "flexed arm hang" for a minimum of 15 seconds. The new rules are if you can pass the required level of ability matching up achievement to demands you should be given that opportunity.

And there is the argument about rape if captured. But that can happen to any female soldier in a war zone. I assume that rape would fall under the same concerns as the risks of dying, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and amputations. There are any numbers of terrible things that can and do go on in a war zone. All of which are a very real part of simply going to war.

Embarrassment and the inconvenience of personal hygiene has been presented as another argument against mixing men and women together within combat units. That one is simply crazy to even discuss. To insist on coupling the niceties of civilian life to the difficulties and risks of the battlefield is not only patronizing it is nonsense.

And there is that concern about unit cohesion and the supposed disruptive nature to leadership of putting women together with men in combat units. I can only imagine what those naysayers of women in combat units would have offered up about an incident that occurred in Vietnam some fifty years ago.

General Hal Moore, as the Colonel commanding the 7th Cavalry Regiment, had promised his troopers as they were leaving for Nam in early 1965 that he would "leave no man behind."

After their tour in Nam, the Seventh Cavalry received its orders to go home when one of Moore's troopers was lost and presumably killed. Colonel Moore sent out the full brigade and kept all three companies out on patrol for days searching for the trooper or the body. What Colonel Moore did was leadership and duty at its highest level. A commander leads by example expecting no less from their soldiers.

Yet, had that trooper been a woman, those against women in combat would have use the incident as an example of how women in combat can force commanders to become unglued emotionally and misguided professionally to have put 500 troopers at risk to find one lost female soldier.

Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried might have given the real answer to those arguing against women being assigned to combat units: "Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty." That may also be the same for women... now that's truly scary stuff.

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