As the Afghanistan war comes to a close, we have the opportunity to contextualize the service of women in order to understand and honor that service accordingly.
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US Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, second from left, died following an attack near the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.Associated Press
Amid the many stories surrounding the end of conventional American military operations in Afghanistan, one loss stood out: the death of 13 service members in a suicide bombing at the airport in Kabul, the most Americans killed in Afghanistan on one day since 2011. Two of the 11 Marines killed were women — Sergeant Nicole Gee, from Sacramento, and Sergeant Johanny Rosario, from Lawrence. They are part of a long line of female Marines who have proudly served and risked their lives on the front lines of Afghanistan and Iraq — often in a way that has been misunderstood by the broader American public.
I should know, both from my time as an active duty Marine Corps officer deployed in Iraq in 2005 and also as an adviser at the Pentagon, in 2016, to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on integrating women into Marine Corps combat roles. In both circumstances, I saw firsthand the types of service that women have performed and witnessed the associated risks to life and limb. And like many Marines, my own service and that of my peers was at times not fully understood by many outside the military community.
With reason. Until 2016, women in the Marines were barred from serving in combat units — infantry, tanks, and artillery, among others. As such, a notion exists that, until then, female Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan hadn’t been on the front lines alongside male counterparts. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Now, as the Afghanistan war comes to a close, we have the opportunity to contextualize the service of women in these wars in order to understand and honor that service accordingly.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accelerated the evolving role of women in the Marine Corps because in these wars, rear areas scarcely existed. An enemy’s most lethal weapons — improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs, suicide attacks, and suicide vehicle-borne bombs — did not discriminate.
Cpl. Christina Oliver, center, and other female Marines on patrol in Helmand province, Sept. 15, 2010. LYNSEY ADDARIO/NYT
It’s estimated that IEDs are responsible for nearly half of the US military deaths during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, any Marine traversing roads in a combat zone was going toe-to-toe with the enemy at significant risk to her life. Each day, male and female Marines alike traveled on potentially bomb-laden roads, delivering ammunition via convoy as a motor-transport Marine; securing a voting location as an engineer; handing out school supplies as a mail clerk, radio operator, or medic; conducting a roadside repair as a mechanic; or escorting journalists to a hostile area, as was Major Megan McClung, a public affairs officer, and the first female Marine officer killed in the Iraq War (in Ramadi, Dec. 6, 2006). Each of these military occupational specialties are noncombat roles, but the nature of modern warfare evolved so as to place these Marines on the front lines of combat operations taking the same risks as their male counterparts.
Furthermore, any convoy in Iraq and Afghanistan had the potential to become a combat engagement. For example, consider the supply convoy led by Marine First Lieutenant Laura Schmitz, a logistics officer, on April 6, 2004, in Iraq, who, along with her Marines, encountered an ambush of rocket-propelled grenades, RPGs, roadside bombs, and machine-gun fire from the awaiting enemy. Schmitz’s Marines returned fire from machine guns atop vehicles, as well as from individual Marines “emptying their rifles and pistols,” before she guided them to eventual safety hours later. This incident took place more than 10 years before the Pentagon officially permitted women to be in combat.
Yet another example of where the role of women has evolved is as part of a female “engagement” or “search” teams at critical and often dangerous checkpoints, where female Marines were responsible for conducting a “pat-down” search of local women and children. Over time, commanders deemed women mission-essential in order to adhere to local cultural sensitivities. Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice while on “engagement” teams on the front lines include Rosario and Gee, last week in Kabul, and Marine Corporal Holly Charette of Rhode Island, in June 2005 in Fallujah, who was returning to base along with members of my battalion and adjacent units after conducting duties alongside the infantry when their vehicle was struck by an SVBIED on “the deadliest day for US women in the Iraq War.” Three female Marines were killed, and 11 service members wounded, some seriously burned.
US Marine Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, a member of the female engagement team assigned to 2d Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, spoke with local civilians during an engagement mission in Marjah, Afghanistan, on Aug. 18, 2010.REUTERS
These developments and others contributed to changes in Defense Department policy, approved in January 2013 and enacted in January 2016, opening all branches of the military to women who could meet the high standards for combat arms specialties, while acknowledging that women had been serving in combat situations for years. Since that time, the Corps commissioned its first female Marine Infantry officer, in 2017. As of a year ago, 300 female Marines had moved into combat arms jobs.
Of course, no discussion of women Marines serving on the front lines in these recent wars would be complete without noting the brave women who piloted aircraft providing close air support to ground troops or transporting wounded personnel like Captain Jennifer Harris of Swampscott, who was killed in Iraq in 2007 when it is believed her aircraft was hit by enemy fire.
To be sure, those whose jobs are typically confined to a base are equally important. They ensure that their fellow Marines have operational planning and mission support, intelligence, and supplies. All Marines who deploy — like the soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women who do the same — are making a sacrifice by being away from their families for months on end. And to be clear, to work on a base in a combat zone (and in training stateside) is not without risk. Incoming rocket or “indirect fire” attacks to American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in loss of life for service members. These attacks are humbling — demonstrating to Americans that, in modern warfare, the battlefield can be anywhere.
Twenty years after 9/11 — how do we contextualize and celebrate the contribution of women Marines? We know that women have been in combat for a long time. We have made great strides and are proud of our service. And by and large, we want our contributions to simply be understood and valued equally alongside our brothers in the Marine Corps. Legendary retired Marine Corps Sergeant Major Brad Kasal, an icon of the Second Battle of Fallujah, set an example for all Marines to follow when, in a touching social media post this week honoring the Marines who fell in Kabul, he reminded all of us that Sergeant Gee was “a Marine, NOT female Marine.”
As the end of conventional warfare in Afghanistan closes the latest chapter in American military operations overseas, its conclusion presents all of us with the opportunity to reflect on how far our military has come in integrating women into every aspect of warfare and to celebrate the service of the women who, on those frontlines, gave the last full measure of devotion to their country, as Sergeants Gee and Rosario did last month.
Maura C. Sullivan served as an assistant secretary at the US Department of Veterans Affairs and special assistant to the secretary of the Navy during the Obama administration. A resident of Portsmouth, N.H., she is an Iraq War veteran and a former Marine Corps officer.