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CMR Concerned about Abuse of American Prisoners of War

March 24, 2003
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In a March 24 News Release, Elaine Donnelly expressed outrage and concern for soldiers in the 507th Army Maintenance Battalion who were captured by Iraqi soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom on Sunday March 23, 2003. Some of the prisoners, still unidentified, were reportedly killed and their bodies displayed on Arabic television.

Donnelly expressed the sincere wish that all remaining captives will soon be released. She added, “When I heard the disturbing news, I feared right away that at least one of those soldiers would be a woman serving her country in uniform. The brutal killings that have already taken place indicate that we are dealing with a ruthless regime that is unlikely to comply with the Geneva Convention requiring humane treatment for prisoners of war.”

Donnelly continued, “Advocates of women in combat often talk about ‘sharing the risk’ of war, but the truth is that women face unequal and greater risks. Vulnerabilities unique to women can and probably will be exploited by enemy captors in this and similar situations as the War on Terrorism continues. Technological advances cannot change the fact that there is nothing ‘fair’ or ‘equal’ about warfare—it is not even civilized.”

Today’s news brings to mind the story of Army Col. Rhonda Cornum, a flight surgeon captured during the 1991-92 Persian Gulf War. Then-Maj. Cornum, a staunch advocate of women in combat, was subjected to “sexual indecencies” within hours of her capture. She was released eight days later, but said nothing in public about the sexual assault for more than a year. Information about Col. Cornum appears on the website www.cmrlink.org, under Issues/People in the News.

Information posted on the CMR website also summarizes changes in rules governing the assignment of women in land combat since the end of Desert Storm. Prior to 1994, the various services had definitions of "direct combat" that included such elements as physical proximity with hostile forces, reconnoitering the enemy with an inherent risk of capture, and engaging the enemy with fire, maneuver or shock effect in contested territory waters, or airspace. The definition of combat is important, since close combat is more than the experience of being shot at or operating in a war zone.

But in 1994, then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin redefined Direct Ground Combat, and eliminated “inherent risk of capture” as a factor to consider in exempting women from serving in units previously defined as close combat. To open up even more “career opportunities” for women, Aspin also eliminated the Defense Department’s (DoD) Risk Rule—a regulation intended to exempt women in non-combat positions from being assigned close to the front lines. Due to these changes, thousands of military women will be serving at higher risk in Operation Iraqi Freedom than anyone would have expected less than a decade ago.

For more information, see various articles posted on the CMR website, www.cmrlink.org. The Center for Military Readiness is an independent public policy organization that specializes in military personnel issues.


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More background information and historic documents on this topic may be available in the 'Essential Resources' section of this website, or in a previous edition of CMR E-Notes, archived here.