Stationed aboard the USS Carl Vinson, Lt. Ashley likes to "walk early." In the lingo of Navy aviators, "walking" means suiting up for battle. "I wake up, I breathe, I hit the head, then I walk," she says. Every day she flies, she visualizes the battlefield. "What you see on television is what I see for real." Once her F-14 Tomcat takes off, concentration edges out fear. On her first combat mission this month, she flew over northern Afghanistan at 15,000 feet, looking for her assigned targets: two antiaircraft batteries. After she hit the first one, she says, "they woke up pretty good." Puffs of gray antiaircraft fire streaked up from below. "I was thinking, 'You don't want to hang around here,' but we had another target, so we came around and hit that, too," she says. Flying back to the carrier, Ashley (the Navy allows the use of first names or call signs only), 26, couldn't stop grinning. "I was smiling at the fact that I had done my thing for the country."
When U.S. servicewomen fought in the gulf war 10 years ago, they couldn't fly fighter jets. They couldn't serve on combat ships, either. But they could do just about everything else. And largely because the women of Desert Storm performed so well, those laws were changed in the early 1990s. Since then, and with little fanfare, women have been assigned combat roles in the Balkans, the Middle East and now Afghanistan. "We're starting to be just one of the guys," says Capt. "Charlie," 30, an A-10 pilot stationed at Arizona's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, who is allowed to be referred to only by her call sign. "Now people talk about you and you're the fighter pilot--not the female fighter pilot, just the fighter pilot."
Women's integration into the U.S. military has been a quiet success story. Since Desert Storm, the proportion of women in the armed forces has grown from 12 to 16 percent. Today women compose about 15 percent of the Army, 13 percent of the Navy, 19 percent of the Air Force and 6 percent of the Marines. And the proportion of jobs open to them ranges from 91 percent in the Army to 99 percent in the high-tech Air Force. "Their inclusion in the military has been quite seamless," says Carolyn Becraft, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense under Clinton. "There have been ups and downs, but they now are a larger percentage of the military and they have higher ranks, and, by all accounts, they're performing very well."
Some key units remain off-limits to women. Though the laws banning women from combat have been repealed, each service can dictate its own restrictions. The Army doesn't allow women in the infantry, artillery or armor units, and women are prohibited from the Navy's submarines. There are no women allowed in any of the prestigious Special Forces, including those now on the ground in Afghanistan. The tough physical requirements for those teams exclude most men--but women aren't even permitted to try. Still, it's only a matter of time, says Becraft, before women are commanding aircraft carriers. Female recruits tend to have more education and better test scores than men. And as technology continues to advance, so will women. "[U.S. military] superiority is in our intelligence and technology," says Linda Grant DePaw of the Minerva Center, a military think tank. People who remain skeptical of having women fight for their country "act like we're still attacking with fixed bayonets."
Indeed, many of the Pentagon's worst fears about a coed military have not been realized. "The data shows that mixed crews perform as well as or better" than all-male units, says Becraft. And although high pregnancy rates have been an issue at times--during the gulf war, the destroyer tender Acadia was dubbed the "Love Boat" after 36 women returned home pregnant--many of the servicewomen NEWSWEEK interviewed said they thought of their male squadmates as brothers. Sexual harassment and assaults still occur too often, but the military is getting better at dealing with them. Even worries over public reaction to female casualties have proved unfounded; 11 women were killed in the gulf war and two aboard the USS Cole, and the public handled it just fine. "It's been a non-issue," says Becraft.
As the country grows accustomed to female warriors, women are increasingly viewing military service as a legitimate career option. U.S. Marine Sgt. Kelly Liska, the daughter of an Air Force veteran from Lubbock, Texas, says she joined the Marines right out of high school because it suited her personality. "I am very competitive," says Liska, an aviation ordnance specialist at New River Air Station in Jacksonville, N.C. "Like, 'You don't think I can lift that? Oh, yeah? Get out of my way'."
Serving in Muslim countries poses special challenges for women. Lt. Wendy Snyder, the Navy's deputy director for public affairs in the Midwest, recalls sweltering when stationed in Indonesia, where she had to wear long sleeves and cover her legs. Women deployed in Saudi Arabia have been unsuccessful in changing the military policy that forces them to wear traditional Saudi garb when they go off base. Some servicewomen find it upsetting to think about the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. "It makes me cry," says Air Force Reserve M/Sgt. Elaine Gualtieri. "Their maternal instincts are just like ours. I'm really hoping that if any good comes out of this, it's that those women will be able to provide for their children the way they want and make life better than it is now."
For American servicemen and -women, leaving their own loved ones behind is a wrenching but understood risk of the job. All single parents and dual military couples are required to establish "family care" plans in case they are deployed. While she waits to be called up, Gualtieri, 40, of Milwaukee, maintains the daily routine, making sure her 8-year-old son goes to soccer practice. Her husband, Bob, is also in the Air Force Reserve, and they go out of their way to be frank but reassuring with the boy. "We talk to Robbie a lot," she says. "We explain sometimes Mommy and Daddy have to go away, but it's OK to miss us and it's OK to be sad." Still, the prospect of separation triggers plenty of heartbreaking conversations. "You know how kids are always changing what they want to be when they grow up?" says U.S. Army M/Sgt. Kelly Tyler, referring to her 10-year-old son. "The other night he told me he wanted to be a war protester so I wouldn't ever have to leave him."
Even so, most American servicewomen wouldn't trade their experiences for anything. But the struggle for equality in the military is not over yet; there are still fewer than 10 female fighter aviators in the Navy. "Because we are so few and far between, everything we do is in the limelight," says Lt. Ashley. Yet she maintains that she is judged not by her gender but by her skill in the air. "You do good work and they accept you," she says. Just ask top gun Lt. "Shorn," who has flown alongside Ashley. "I'm a man in her Navy," he says. Tom Cruise never would have said that.