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  • Appendix R, "Role of Women in the Theater of Operations" in Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress. vol.2 Washington: Department of Defense, 1992.
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Women in the U.S. Navy: Historic Documents

Women in U.S. Military during Desert Shield/Desert Storm

Role of Women in the Theater of Operations

"They endured the same living conditions, duties, and responsibilities .... They performed
professionally and without friction or special consideration." - US Marine Officer


Department of Defense (DOD) women played a vital role in the theater of operations. By late February, more than 37,000 military women were in the Persian Gulf, making up approximately 6.8 percent of US forces. By Service, there were approximately 26,000 Army, 3,700 Navy, 2,200 Marine, and 5,300 Air Force (USAF) women deployed. Women served in almost all of the hundreds of occupations open to them; as a matter of law and policy, women were excluded from certain specific combat military occupational specialties.

Job Functions of Women During Desert Shield/Storm

Women were administrators, air traffic controllers, logisticians, engineer equipment mechanics, ammunition technicians, ordnance specialists, communicators, radio operators, drivers, law enforcement specialists and guards. Many women truck drivers hauled supplies and equipment into Kuwait. Some brought enemy prisoners of war back to holding facilities. Many flew helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft. Still others served on hospital, supply, oiler and ammunition ships. Others served as public affairs officers and chaplains. Several women commanded brigade, battalion, company, and platoon size units in the combat service support areas. They endured the same harsh conditions as their male counterparts. The deployment of women was highly successful. Women performed admirably and without substantial friction or special considerations.

Deployment of Women to Combat Zones

Although women did not serve in units whose mission involved direct combat with the enemy, some women were subjected to combat. Five Army women were killed in action and 21 wounded in action. Two women were taken as Prisoners of War (POW). All casualties were the result of indirect causes, i.e., Scud attack, helicopter crash, or mines. One woman Marine driving a truck struck a mine in Kuwait, receiving no injuries. Four Marine women qualified for, and received, the Combat Action Ribbon having been engaged by, and returned fire against, bypassed Iraqi troops. 

Because media attention was afforded to the relatively few cases in which women faced combat conditions, the public perception of the role of women in the Gulf War has tended to be skewed. Army and Marine women served in combat support and service support units ashore. Navy women served on hospital, supply, oiler, and ammunition ships afloat. Ashore, they served in construction battalions, fleet hospitals, and air reconnaissance squadrons, as well as in many support billets. While the combat exclusion law prevented women from being assigned to combat units and on combatant ships, the nature of this war constantly moved the lines of combat, i.e. the Scud Missile attacks. Women found themselves engaged in combat even though they were not with such units. The manpower needs sometimes led women to work in areas or on missions that they otherwise would not have participated. The needs of the war presumably led commanding officers and mission leaders to use the best qualified persons to carry out their orders even when that involved females. Thus, there were sometimes a difference between enforcing the written law regarding women in combat and using them because they were among the best persons needed to maximize the success of the mission. There were other occasions where women were sent because they were the only qualified individual available, i.e. Rhonda Cornum, the flight surgeon who became a POW after her helicopter was shot down. USAF women served in support billets as well as in tanker, transport, and medical evacuation aircraft. All USAF C-130 squadrons in theater had women maintenance officers. No USAF women saw direct combat.

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 1992 and 1993 repealed the statutory limitations on the assignment of women to aircraft flying combat missions. The Act also established a Presidential Commission on Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces. The Commission is intended to assess laws and policies restricting the assignment of women service members. The law requires the President to transmit the Commission's report to Congress by l5 December l992. DOD fully supports the commission. Several other related DOD study efforts also are examining the experience of women service members in the Persian Gulf.

The Army is conducting studies in two categories: "soldier human factors research" during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and "family factors research" focusing on post Operation Desert Storm family issues. The Navy is studying the issue of women serving in a combat environment. Researchers have surveyed units in the Persian Gulf and are analyzing their data.

DOD is working with the General Accounting Office on a more extensive study to analyze the role of military women in the Persian Gulf. This study will examine issues such as the impact of women on deployment and field operations; women's role in the deployed units; unit operations issues, such as unit cohesion/bonding; and ground deployment issues, such as hygiene. Service historians also have been asked to document contributions made by women in the Persian Gulf.

Data will document the overall number of women who deployed, the skills of those women, the number of single parents and married military couples, and data comparisons with males on the numbers and types of separations from the military. These analyses and assessments will serve as the basis for further evaluation of current policies concerning women in the military. Emerging results of analyses conducted on non-deployable personnel suggest the non-deployability percentages for female personnel were somewhat higher than the percentage for male personnel. Pregnancies accounted for the largest difference in non-deployable percentages. Other differences are not as easily identified and require additional analysis. While non-deployability did not affect the overall conduct of the operation, it is nevertheless an issue that will require further study for future deployment criteria for women.

Several observations have emerged. There were instances of misunderstanding concerning the application of combat restrictions. DOD policies are not designed to shield women from all hostilities, but are designed to limit their exposure to a level which is less than that in direct combat. Direct combat means closing with the enemy by fire, maneuver, or shock effect to destroy or capture, or while repelling assault by fire, close combat or counterattack. The Risk Rule is used to determine if a non-direct combat position should be closed to women. Noncombat units can be closed to women on grounds of risk of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture, if the type, degree, and duration of risk is equal to or greater than that experienced by associated combat units (of similar land, sea, or air type) in the same theater of operation.

Finally, the substantial social and cultural differences involving the role of women in Saudi Arabia have received some attention. While there are marked differences, they did not affect the military's role in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The mission was not one of changing cultural values and beliefs. In fact, the Saudi government ensured US military members, both female and male, were not restricted in the performance of their military duties, even if such duties might counter normal Saudi culture. This was best demonstrated by Saudi acceptance of American women driving military vehicles. However, outside of military duties, Service members were obliged to respect the host country's cultural distinctions of the host country. This courtesy was extended within Saudi Arabia, just as it is within all other countries where US military members serve.

Although US forces had a military, not a civilian mission, this does not mean their presence did riot have an effect on Saudi culture. US military men and women deployed to Saudi Arabia were selected based on mission need, with no distinction made for gender, other than application of restrictions contained in US combat exclusion laws and policies. As previously mentioned, this meant US women performed a wide range of critical missions. This fact alone clearly sets a visible example of US principles.



1. Women were fully integrated into their assigned units.
2. Women performed vital roles, under stress, and performed well.
3. Current laws and policies were followed.


1. The media and public interest was centered on female casualties and POW.
2. ln some respects, deployment criteria for women differ among Services. In a few cases, these differences and different interpretations by local commands caused concerns.

Published: Thu Nov 30 07:51:56 EST 2017