CARLISLE, Pa. -- Kimberly Fahnestock Voelz is buried near the church where she was baptized, a few miles across fallow farm fields from the stables where she raised quarter horses as a teenager. Next door is the yellow frame house she left one day in 1996 and, without telling her parents, joined the Army.
Voelz came home in a military coffin in December, dead at 27 from a booby-trapped bomb in Iraq. She was the first American female explosive ordnance disposal expert killed in action -- one of 16 women to give their lives so far in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Voelz died in the arms of her husband, Max Voelz, also a staff sergeant on the 17-person ordnance disposal team on which Voelz was the lone woman. Her parents, Floyd and Carol Fahnestock, were devastated by her death, but comforted by the knowledge that their headstrong daughter died performing a job she loved and living the adventurous life she had always craved.
"Kimmy wanted to do exciting things and see the world," Carol Fahnestock said recently while sitting in her kitchen, flipping through a thick photo album of her daughter's military career.
Across America, parents of young women are confronting a new military reality: Females are more likely than ever to be placed in or near combat zones. Ten women have been killed by enemy fire in Iraq, proportionately the highest number in American history. By contrast, one woman was killed by enemy fire in Vietnam, three during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and none during conflicts in Korea or Afghanistan.
After the 1991 conflict, Congress lifted prohibitions against females serving on planes or ships that were likely to see combat, and women rapidly moved into dangerous assignments previously reserved for men. Today the threat to soldiers is particularly high in Iraq, where a deadly guerrilla insurgency has placed every service member -- man or woman, combat soldier or supply clerk -- at risk of attack.
Nearly 20,000 women are serving in Iraq, 15,000 of them in the Army. At 15 percent, the proportion of females in the armed forces is the highest ever. Between World War II and Vietnam, women composed 2 percent of the armed forces. As recently as the 1991 gulf war, the figure was 11 percent.
For the Fahnestock family, Kimberly's death did not erode their support for women serving in dangerous assignments. Her parents say they would not have wanted their daughter to be relegated to a traditional female military role -- nurse, clerk, cook or supply soldier. Voelz insisted on an action-oriented assignment, and was one of just 37 female explosive ordnance specialists in the Army. She died Dec. 14 from injuries received while attempting to defuse booby-trapped tank rounds attached to an electrical tower near Iskandariyah.
"She was proud of what she was doing -- she loved her job," said her father, a Vietnam veteran. "She didn't want to sit behind a desk."
While there has been no groundswell of protest against the high rate of female combat deaths in Iraq, the matter of women serving in war zones is still controversial. A December survey by the Gallup Poll found that 16 percent of 1,004 Americans surveyed said women should never get combat assignments, while 45 percent said they should get such assignments only if they wanted them.
Women still are prohibited from serving in special forces, infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineers, certain air defense units, on submarines or on scout or attack helicopters.
Elaine Donnelly, a former member of a presidential commission on women in the armed forces, is leading a campaign for a review of laws in the early 1990s that permitted women on combat planes and ships. Donnelly wants women taken out of the line of fire, in part because of the risk of rape if captured. She says she has gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition sent to President Bush, asking him to direct the Pentagon to change its policies on females and combat-related assignments.
While the nation has no choice whether to send its men into combat, Donnelly said, it does have a choice whether to send women. Exposing women to possible enemy attack creates an unacceptable risk, she said.
"If we really support our women in the military, why place this burden on them?" Donnelly said.
She cited a 1998 General Accounting Office report, quoting a Rand Corp. study that found only 10 percent of female privates and corporals interviewed agreed that, "Women should be treated exactly like men and serve (in combat units just like men)."
Donnelly said she is surprised that female casualties in Iraq have not received more public and media attention. "It's as if nobody wants to think about it -- like the issue has been put in an emotional lock box," she said.
Marilla Cushman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with Women In Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.,said there should be no distinction between the combat deaths of male and female soldiers.
"As retired military and as a mother, I can tell you that I would mourn no less the death of a son than I would my daughter," Cushman said.
Almost a decade after Congress lifted restrictions on women serving on planes and ships in combat situations, the matter is still controversial, said Dr. Judy Bellafaire, a military historian.
"A lot of it has to do with the whole issue of physical strength -- whether women would be able to physically handle assignments," Bellafaire said. While more men than women are physically capable of performing challenging assignments, she said, many female soldiers are strong and fit enough to do the job.
"There are some men who might be very highly skilled intelligence analysts or highly skilled behind the computer who could not physically qualify for a more dangerous or demanding assignment," Bellafaire said.
Bellafaire said she has not detected any backlash over the unprecedented number of women killed by enemy attacks in Iraq. "It's impossible to say that a female casualty is a worse tragedy than a male casualty," she said. "Every casualty means a family somewhere is devastated."
At the two-story Fahnestock home, reminders of Kimberly are everywhere. There are framed photos of her at a quarter horse competition, with her pet dogs, in her protective ordnance disposal suit, with her fellow ordnance disposal soldiers and in a military dress uniform with her soldier-husband.
In a scrapbook is a handwritten letter from Spec. Richard Brevard, one of the soldiers who escorted Voelz to the site of the explosive device made from tank shells taped to an electrical tower the night of Dec. 13. When Voelz went to inspect the device, the tape snapped and the tank rounds dropped and exploded, her father said.
"She was all about getting the job done right and as fast as possible while being safe," Breward wrote to the Fahnestocks. After the explosion, which nearly severed her left leg, Voelz "even made the effort to tell us 'Thank you' before we left," he wrote. He added: "Thank you for raising such a wonderful daughter."
Voelz was taken to a military hospital near Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, where her lower leg was amputated. Max Voelz, who was on duty in Iraq, rushed to the hospital. She died in his arms that morning; he removed the wedding ring from her finger, her parents said.
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