Nearly 300,000 women served during the Iraq War. Two decades later, they remain "invisible veterans"
The increase in women soldiers, and the visibility of their service, led to policy changes over the next 20 years.
Christina Schauer deployed to Baghdad in March 2003 during her sophomore year in college. At age 20, Schauer was part of an 800-member reserve battalion that consisted mainly of engineers, truck drivers, mechanics and a handful of medics like herself, tasked with building up the military bases that are there now. About 10 percent were women, she said.
“I joined the military knowing that this was a possibility, but it was surreal,” said Schauer, who had enlisted during peacetime in 1999 to help pay for college and nursing school.
For the first couple of weeks, Schauer said, they didn’t have tents. They slept outside their trucks and held up curtains when people needed to shower. It took months to set up tents, flooring, electricity and eventually air-conditioning. During her year in Iraq, Schauer said she faced gunfire, exploding mortars and the constant threat of violence. Whether they were gunners or truck drivers, men and women alike engaged in combat roles — something that became far more commonplace in the conflict.
“I don’t think people think of women serving those types of roles in the military,” said Schauer, who now leads a military and veteran health care program at a community hospital in Dubuque, Iowa.
In the 20 years since the United States invaded Iraq, over a quarter of a million women have served there, the largest-scale and most visible deployment of women in U.S. history. More than 1,000 women had been injured in combat and 166 killed as of 2017, according to the Service Women’s Action Network. The capture and rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch made headlines early in the war, and women were among the service members named in the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. The United States formally withdrew its combat forces in 2011, but maintains a military presence.
The increase in women soldiers, and the visibility of their service, was integral to the military’s mission and ultimately led to major policy changes like the removal of ground combat restrictions for women. Still, according to experts, many women veterans of the Iraq War remain invisible and unrecognized among the larger American public.
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