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BACKGROUND REPORT – Women in the Military - 2003-04-03

This is a VOA Special English Background Report.

Women have served in some way in every one of America’s conflicts since the War of Independence in the seventeen-hundreds. The first American service women taken prisoner were captured in the eighteen-hundreds during the Civil War.

Since the war in Iraq began, at least three American women have been captured or listed as missing.

This week, an Iraqi led American rescuers to one of them in a hospital. Nineteen-year-old Army Private Jessica Lynch is now resting at a hospital in Germany. She was held prisoner for more than a week after a group of Army supply trucks took a wrong turn. Private Lynch is reported to have fought the Iraqis who captured her.

Today, women are fifteen percent of the armed forces, or about one in six members. In the Iraq war, they fly helicopters, launch missiles and drop bombs. Others guard Iraqi prisoners or -- as in the case of Private Lynch -- transport supplies in trucks.

More than forty-thousand American women served during the nineteen-ninety-one Persian Gulf War. That was seven percent of the United States forces deployed, more than ever before, but women were kept out of the fighting. In nineteen-ninety-four, the administration of President Bill Clinton reduced the job restrictions on women in the military. That opened more than ninety percent of all jobs to women.

There are still areas of unequal treatment. For example, women cannot fight as ground troops on the front lines of battle. They cannot join Special Forces either. At the same time, there are other issues to deal with.

Last week, the chief of the Air Force said he will replace four top officers of the Air Force Academy in Colorado. This follows charges that officers punished women who had reported sex attacks at the military college. Members of Congress have criticized the situation. On Thursday, Air Force officials said they would work closely with Congress to learn all the facts. The officials also said they would work on the academy to create a better atmosphere for women.