April 17, 2012: The last decade has seen a sharp increase in American female troops killed in combat. Since September 11, 2001, 139 female troops have died in combat, two percent of the 6,740 who have died so far. That's two percent of all combat deaths. That's 49 combat deaths per 100,000 women sent to the combat zone, compared to 330 for the male troops.
American women serving in combat is no longer news, nor is the sight of many women in a combat zone. Nearly 300,000 women have served in combat zones since 2001. In the peak years there were 12,000 women serving in Iraq, and there are even more in Afghanistan right now. While female troops are technically in support roles those jobs include flying helicopters and other aircraft, military police (as in guarding bases and convoys), and truck drivers (convoys under fire). The women troops also participate in base security (guard duty). Intelligence gathering and, in general, have ample opportunity for armed and violent interactions with unfriendly locals.
Over a third of the female dead (and nearly as many male dead) were from non-combat causes (traffic accidents or mishaps on bases). The rest of the dead and wounded women were killed in combat. Women comprise ten percent of the troops in the combat zones and about 16 percent of all U.S. troops worldwide. Currently, 15 percent of American active duty (full time) troops are female and 18 percent of reservists.
Department of Defense policy forbids the use of female troops in direct combat. This is mostly about politics, but the rule is there and must be obeyed. Or at least an attempt must be made to enforce the rule. While many women find themselves in firefights and exposed to roadside bombs anyway, that's normal for a combat zone. As far back as World War II, 25 percent of all troops in the army found themselves under fire at one time or another, although only about 15 percent of soldiers had a "direct combat" job. In Iraq women made up about eight percent of the military personnel but only two percent of the casualties (dead and wounded). So the policy, which many politicians oppose but most women soldiers favor, appears to be working.
As a practical matter, you will never have a lot of women in combat, mainly because women have never been as effective as men in combat units. In the past century there have been several serious attempts to employ women in combat. Except for some guerilla units, it never worked out well enough to make it practical to continue the practice. But women have proved very valuable in combat support units, where physical strength and a taste for ultra-violence (the two things that have always made men such eager warriors) are not essential. But American women have increasingly been in combat situations, as part of a ten year trend. That means more of them are getting killed or wounded.
The casualty rate of the 450,000 American women who served in World War II (where very few women were sent to the combat zone) was about 11 dead per 100,000 troops. It was about ten times that in Vietnam, where some 10,000 women served in a combat zone. However, the casualty rate for women in combat zones during World War II was about the same as for those women in Vietnam. Even without being in combat it was dangerous to be in the military. During World War II 25 percent of troop deaths were from non-combat causes. Vehicles (both ground and air) were more dangerous than today, as was a lot of other equipment.
In the 1991 Gulf War 33,000 women participated, and the casualty rate was about the same as Vietnam. That trend took a turn upward in Iraq, where about ten percent of the troops are female, although the women suffer casualties at about one-tenth the rate of the men. This is largely because women are not in combat units and are not involved in convoy operations to the same extent as the male troops.
Compared to past wars, overall casualties in Iraq have been quite low, with only 1.7 percent of troops getting killed or wounded in combat. Since most of the casualties were suffered by the army and marines, and these two services only supplied 40 percent of the personnel, their casualty rate was more like 4.2 percent. But that's still a third of the rate in Vietnam (12.5 percent, or 350,000 combat casualties for 2.8 million who served there).
In the United States women began entering the armed forces in a big way 40 years ago. Now, about eight percent of 22 million veterans are women, and six percent of patients in the Veterans Administration (VA) medical system are as well. By the end of the decade ten percent of veterans will be female, as will be over nine percent of those receiving medical care from the VA.