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Female military roles change as front lines disappear

Female soldiers say it's time people put aside traditional ideas about their place in combat. Oklahoma lost its first female soldier in combat earlier this month.
BY BRYAN DEAN Modified: November 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm •  Published: November 13, 2011

The U.S. Army and Marines traditionally don't allow women to serve in front-line combat roles.

But in wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no front lines. The recent death of Spc. Sarina Butcher, 19, of Checotah, should serve as a reminder that traditional concepts of women in combat are no more, said female soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the state's first female Air National Guard commander.

Butcher, 19, is the first female member of the Oklahoma National Guard to die in war. She and another soldier, Sgt. Christopher Gailey, 26, of Ochelata, died Nov. 1 after their vehicle was hit with a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon led the state's Air National Guard before retiring and now serves as Gov. Mary Fallin's secretary of veterans affairs. Aragon said the Air Force and Navy have women serving as combat pilots and on Navy ships. But the other two branches of the military have been slower to integrate women into front-line roles.

“The Army and the Marine Corps are the two that say they don't want women on the front lines,” Aragon said. “And yet, there is no front line anymore. We must have women out in the front because men can't search women. Women are there. They just aren't receiving the same credit as men for being there.”

Aragon recently served on the White House Commission on Military Leadership Diversity, which looked at why women and minorities are underrepresented in senior military leadership roles.

One of the group's recommendations was ending Army and Marine policies that define certain front-line combat roles where women are not supposed to serve.

Army 1st Lt. Kerri Keck is serving in Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. She trained Female Engagement Teams, which search and question Afghan women, a task male soldiers aren't allowed to do because of cultural concerns.

Keck said they also obtain intelligence that their male counterparts sometimes can't because civilians often feel more comfortable talking to a female soldier.

“The issue that females should not be in combat roles is irrelevant at this point because females have been on the front lines proudly putting their lives on the line for their country for at least a decade now,” Keck said.

Keck said women drive trucks along routes littered with roadside bombs and protect military outposts that are often attacked by insurgents.

The Oklahoma National Guard has 950 female members, and 197 of them are among the more than 3,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan, military officials said.

Spc. Alyssa Rainville, of Ponca City, serves on the personal security detail of Col. Joel Ward, the commander of the 45th in Afghanistan. Rainville said she is the only female in her platoon.

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