In The Line of Fire

Read this article at the weekend, and thought it was a rounded well put together article on females an the front line, in arms that may not do a front line role.

Soem of the comments at the bottem are ammusing though

Times on Line Clicky

For those that may not be able to use link

High up in the camouflage-draped watchtower, Gunner Georgina Bell sits motionless, her eye steady over the sights of her machine gun, pointing straight down the road leading up to the British air base outside Basra. For hours at a time, she keeps guard in the sand-scorching heat, watching for the giveaway signs of an explosives-packed car – the lone driver, the nervous sweating – that would force her to a snap decision. “If I genuinely thought it was a suicide bomber, a warning shot’s not going to do any good,” Bell, 24, explains. “You try to take out the individual first.” In other words, kill him before he kills you.

Across on the other side of the sprawling base, as the evening sun sinks in the sky, Lieutenant Lucy Butler, 25, is readying her troops for the night’s mission. Two hours from now, she will set out to lead a snaking convoy of supplies through the bomb-rigged streets of Basra to the British battle group based at Saddam’s old palace. The convoy is the only road traffic that runs between the two bases, and each time it goes out, it is attacked. On its last run, a week earlier, three young infantry soldiers guarding it were killed by a home-made bomb planted in the road. They were combat troops; Butler, technically, is not. “It’s all semantics, really,” Major David Poole, Butler’s commanding officer, says as he watches the troops buzz around preparing for departure. “Lucy will be mortared, blown up and shot at tonight. That’s enough combat for most people.”

History abounds with tales of women warriors, from Boadicea to Joan of Arc to Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the infamous Red Army sniper who took down 309 Nazi soldiers before a mortar blast finally forced her from the battlefield. But their notoriety is such precisely because of their rarity. In the century and a half since women first officially served alongside British forces in the Crimean War, as nurses, they have made many inroads into the male world of war, from the cockpits of fighter jets to the decks of warships. There are nearly 18,000 women in the regular British forces, accounting for nine per cent of its troops; 1,600 of them now are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Officially, however, they still cannot serve in so-called close combat, where their duty is “deliberately to close with and kill the enemy”.

It is a phrase more redolent of Flanders fields than the mean streets of Basra. Those are the semantics that give Major Poole little comfort as he waves Lucy and her troops off on her mission while he waits, in his own words, “like mother hen” for the their safe return; the semantics that mean Georgina can shoot a suicide bomber when he drives towards her watchtower, but cannot join the infantry which goes out to capture him before he even sets out. While the issue of women on the front line is still debated in the hallways of power, the truth on the ground is that such a boundary no longer exists. In Iraq, British men and women battle an often invisible enemy around and among them. Old distinctions about front lines and combat have melted away in this 360-degree war, placing women soldiers in the firing line as they have never been before. They may not yet have the inalienable right to fight for their country, but they share with the men the real risk of dying for it.

Corporal Nicola Lake is a nurse, the oldest job of women in the military. If she had gone to an earlier war, she might never have gone anywhere riskier than a field hospital. On joining up, she would have been trained to fire a rifle, but might never have needed to carry one. When she goes to work today, however, it is to a helicopter launch pad, not a hospital, and she travels with a pistol and an assault rifle. A sweet-faced brunette with a comforting, maternal air, Lake is a nurse with the RAF’s Incident Response Team, a flying squad of medical staff that swoops in by helicopter to pluck wounded soldiers from the field – often while the fighting is still going on. When an emergency call comes through, Lake and her team scramble to a waiting helicopter with full body armour, medical kit and weapons to reach the wounded and get them into theatre within the “Golden Hour” critical to their survival. They can never be entirely sure what they will find.

“When you’re flying in, you’re thinking about what the situation on the ground will be like,” Lake explains. Even before the Geneva Conventions were drafted, conventional warfare was governed by certain codes of conduct that allowed medical personnel access to the wounded without fear of being drawn into the conflict. In Iraq, all that has changed. The armband with the Red Cross that once denoted a medic has now been discarded; to an insurgent, its only purpose might be to serve as a target. “We take the rifles because unfortunately the enemy don’t recognise medical personnel as anyone to be left alone. So we carry it purely for our own protection.” When she gets off the helicopters to attend the casualties, she leaves the rifle on board, relying on the pistol strapped to her thigh. “But that’s our last resort.” It is, Christy Hooson, Lake’s team partner, admits, a strange thought for a medic that you might have to take, rather than save, a life. “But you are a soldier first,” she points out. “And you have to make sure the ground is safe before you can become a medic.”

Lance-Bombardier Claire Stevenson mulls over the same dark thought every time she leaves the base on patrol. It is her second tour in Iraq and once more her artillery unit has been sent here to do the job of the infantry, even though, as a woman, she cannot join its ranks. On her tour last year, she lost three fellow artillerymen when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at their Land Rover. How would she respond under attack? “I think about it most of the time. Before you go out on patrol, you think, ‘What if I had to do this?’ If I have to, I have to. If I had to kill someone, I wouldn’t hesitate. You just have to think, it’s my life or theirs.”

Lucy Butler could easily face such a decision tonight. The Royal Logistics Corps were once dismissed as “blanket stackers”, taunted that they were so far from the front, they even had to send their laundry forward. Not any more. With fewer and fewer British military vehicles venturing on to Basra’s streets, the snaking, four-mile-long logistics convoy between the airbase and the palace is the number-one target for insurgents battling the British. “Mortars going off, friendly force and enemy force, mortars, flares, Apaches overhead, explosions, the crackle of small-arms fire,” Butler lists the din of battle she must blank out to lead the convoy. “While I’m aware of the danger, it’s not something I feel as a pressing presence. When you get back, you realise what you’ve come through, and the adrenaline flows.”

That relief will have to wait, for another 12 hours at least. Tonight they will be trying a new route, never tested before, in a bid to throw the enemy. The journey will take them half the night as they skirt around the city and then back in towards the palace, dropping off their load before setting out again. In front of a map marked with the routes, Lucy reminds her troops how to act under fire. Some listen while others scribble intently. “If there is small-arms fire, try to exit the killing area,” she tells them. You may not open fire, unless your life or that of another soldier is in danger.” The likelihood is there will be quite a few weapons fired tonight. “There are no certainties in life, and [the idea] that I would come back home is not a certainty,” Lucy admits. “But neither is Armageddon.”

Getting war tales out of some of these self-possessed young women can be a little like drawing teeth. The tendency to underplay the danger they face is universal. “Oh, you don’t want to get into that war stories malarkey,” Lucy laughs when I ask her how much she tells the folks at home about what she really gets up to. It’s a far cry from some of the chest-beating bluster that goes on when the men come home. One female soldier tells of her private amusement when she meets squaddies home on leave and they start bragging of their wartime exploits. “You won’t tell them what you do, just so you can hear what their chat-up lines are, and they’ll go on about Iraq and Afghanistan, and then after about an hour you find out that really they are just a clerk and they’ve never been out on the ground after all. And then you say, ‘Oh, I’m in the army, too.’ The looks on their faces.”

Lucy never joined up to get thrills, or be in danger; it is something she accepts with the job. Indeed, as poor grounded Prince Harry could testify, it is hard to be taken seriously, or sustain a military career, if you have never seen action. War, after all, is what armies are about, what they are ultimately trained to do. That ultimate test, and the quest for adventure, too, drove Louise Roberts, 23, to pester commanders for a transfer to another brigade when she discovered it would be the next to go to Iraq. She was prepared to be in the line of fire right from the moment she joined up at 19 as a radio operator with the Royal Corps of Signals. “You watch war films and the key bloke is always the one with the radio,” she says. “Unfortunately he’s always the one that gets slotted,” she adds, with a hearty Brummie laugh.

Roberts – blonde, sporty, ferociously focused – landed her plum job as personal signaller to the brigade commander over a male colleague, a huge shock. Unlike most of the other signal positions, the job meant going out on the ground with the brigadier on a daily basis. “You always think that they’ll go for the guy, but they didn’t,” she tells me. “Initially, I just thought I’d love to go to war – well, not I’d love to go to war, because no one would love to go to war, but I’d love to do my job. And then you come to theatre and you think, wow, you’re actually in a war zone.” She had been in Iraq just two weeks when she encountered her first improvised explosive device, or IED: the roadside bombs that have become the weapon of choice of insurgents and militias alike in post-Saddam Iraq.
The comments from the Americans are amazing! They are living on a differnt planet - or in the backwoods somewhere.
Poppy said:
The comments from the Americans are amazing! They are living on a differnt planet - or in the backwoods somewhere.
I know made me hoot no end. They were from deepest darkest South where they thought they might loose the only loving they get....

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