BAGHDAD — Staff Sgt. Wendy McDermott, a nurse with the 67th Combat Support
Hospital who just arrived in Iraq, always takes
a buddy when she has to stray far from her living quarters or work area.
Traveling in pairs in a combat zone, said the Wurzburg, Germany-based
soldier, provides a measure of protection against all enemies — foreign or
"It's bothersome, but you have to be careful in this environment," said
McDermott, 31, of Selingsgrove, Penn.
"It's so overwhelmingly male here."
The buddy system, which is unit policy, is one example of how the Army seeks
to protect deployed female soldiers from sexual assault — an issue that is on
the forefront of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's agenda.
On Thursday, Rumsfeld ordered a review of the department's policy on sexual
assault and the treatment of victims. The review, due back to Rumsfeld in three
months, was prompted by a Jan. 25 Denver Post article that reported 37 female
servicemembers sought counseling and other help from civilian rape crisis
organizations after returning from war duty in Iraq and Kuwait.
Several soldiers interviewed Saturday in Iraq and Afghanistan said they were
not aware of any sexual assaults in their units.
"I haven't heard of anything like that," said Pfc. Francesca Duke, of the
501st Military Police Company, 1st Armored Division, deployed to Baghdad. "Most
of it's pretty squared away," said Duke, 21, of La Quinta, Calif.
Others, such as Sgt. Pamela Beasley of 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation
Regiment, 1st Armored Division, said they trusted their chains of command to
handle any such report.
"Nine times out of 10, if anybody were caught doing something like that,
they're gone," said Beasley, 28, of Shreveport, La.
Roughly 59,742 women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq between October 2002
and November 2003. About 92 percent of military jobs are open to women.
In units where men and women work together, the military provides separate
living and, usually, shower and toilet facilities.
That separation, Duke said, is really designed to prevent "mutual"
attractions between men and women, as well as provide a modicum of privacy for
Despite such measures, Sgt. Carol Ralls, deployed to Bagram Air Base,
Afghanistan, said she often finds the deployment atmosphere sexually charged.
"You can be a single woman in a crowd of 10 men, and all these men are
talking about is sex — graphic issues about sex," said Ralls, with the 518th
Signal Company, from Fort Gordon, Ga.
To some extent, she said, women in the military just have to "humor" what is
basically an annoyance. If talk gets to the point it's offending, "you can get
up and leave on your own. It's nothing you're going to cry to someone about."
But if it gets to the point where it's getting out of hand, "you have to report
it," Ralls said.
In response to questions about Rumsfeld's review, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a
senior Army leader in Iraq, said, "Whenever there's an allegation, we
investigate it very thoroughly."
All servicemembers, whether deployed or not, receive annual training on the
military's zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy, he said.
"We take the matter very seriously," said Kimmitt, deputy director of
operations for Combined Joint Task Force-7.
Col. Lou Marich, commander of the 1st Armored Division Engineer Brigade in
Baghdad, said he found news of the review "upsetting," because he has tried to
create a climate in which all soldiers feel comfortable airing serious problems
with their leaders.
"I would like to believe that my female soldiers would have the courage to
come through this chain of command," Marich said.
Duke, of the Friedberg, Germany-based 501st MP Company, said she would feel
comfortable going to her leaders, unless the assault was by someone in her
"Then I might feel intimidated because I'd have to live with the guy for
another two years," Duke said.
— Staff writers Sandra Jontz in Washington, D.C., and Terry Boyd in
Afghanistan contributed to this report.
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