Kimberly Fahnestock Voelz is buried near the church where she was baptized, a few miles across fallow farm fields from the stables where she raised quarter horses as a teenager. Next door is the yellow frame house she left one day in 1996 and, without telling her parents, joined the Army.
Kimberly came home in a military coffin in December, dead at age 27 from a booby-trapped bomb in Iraq. She was the first American female explosive ordnance disposal expert ever killed in action -- the 453rd U.S. service member killed in Iraq and one of 16 women to give their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Staff Sgt. Voelz died in the arms of her husband, Max Voelz, also a staff sergeant on the 17-person ordnance disposal team on which Kimberly was the lone woman. Her parents, Floyd and Carol Fahnestock, were devastated by her death, but comforted by the knowledge that their headstrong daughter died performing a job she loved and living the adventurous life she had always craved.
“Kimmy wanted to do exciting things and see the world,” Carol Fahnestock said recently while sitting in her kitchen, flipping through a thick photo album of her daughter’s military career.
Across America, parents of young women are confronting a new military reality: Women are more likely than ever to be placed in or near combat zones. Ten women have been killed by enemy fire in Iraq, proportionately the highest number in American history. By contrast, just one woman was killed by enemy fire in Vietnam, three during the 1991 Gulf War, and none during conflicts in Korea or Afghanistan.
After the 1991 conflict, Congress lifted prohibitions against women serving on planes or ships that were likely to see combat, and women rapidly moved into dangerous assignments previously reserved for men. Today the threat to soldiers is particularly high in Iraq, where a deadly insurgency has placed every service member -- man or woman, combat soldier or supply clerk -- at risk of attack.
And with more women serving in the armed forces, more are exposed to danger. Nearly 20,000 women are serving in Iraq, 15,000 of them in the Army. At 15%, the proportion of women in the armed forces is the highest ever. Between World War II and Vietnam, women comprised just 2% of the armed forces. As recently as the 1991 Gulf War, the figure was 11%.
For the Fahnestock family, Kimberly’s death did not erode their support for women serving in dangerous assignments. Her parents say they would not have wanted their daughter to be relegated to a traditional female military role -- nurse, clerk, cook or supply soldier. Kimberly insisted on an action-oriented assignment, and was one of just 37 female explosive ordnance specialists in the Army. She died Dec. 14 from injuries received while attempting to defuse booby-trapped tank rounds attached to an electrical tower near Iskandariya.
“She was proud of what she was doing -- she loved her job,” said her father, a Vietnam veteran. “She didn’t want to sit behind a desk.”
While there has been no groundswell of protest against the high rate of female combat deaths in Iraq, the matter of women serving in war zones is still controversial. A December survey by the Gallup Poll found that 16% of 1,004 Americans surveyed said women should never get combat assignments, while 45% said they should get such assignments only if they wanted them.
Women still are prohibited from serving in special forces, infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineers, certain air defense units, on submarines or on scout or attack helicopters.
Elaine Donnelly, a former member of a presidential commission on women in the armed forces, is leading a campaign for a review of laws in the early 1990s that permitted women on combat planes and ships. Donnelly wants women taken out of the line of fire, in part because of the risk of rape if captured. She says she has gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition sent to President Bush, asking him to direct the Pentagon to change its policies on women and combat-related assignments.
While the nation has no choice whether to send its men into combat, Donnelly said, it does have a choice whether to send women. Exposing women to possible enemy attack creates an unacceptable risk, she said.
“If we really support our women in the military, why place this burden on them?” Donnelly said.
She cited a 1998 General Accounting Office report quoting a Rand Corp. study that found only 10% of female privates and corporals interviewed agreed that “women should be treated exactly like men and serve” in combat units just like men.
Donnelly said she was surprised that female casualties in Iraq had not received more public and media attention. “It’s as if nobody wants to think about it -- like the issue has been put in an emotional lock box,” she said.
Marilla Cushman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington, said there should be no distinction between the combat deaths of male and female soldiers.
“As retired military and as a mother, I can tell you that I would mourn no less the death of a son than I would my daughter,” Cushman said.
Retired Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, the first woman to deploy with a Strategic Air Command bombardment wing, said that women were so integrated into units that it wasn’t possible to segregate them once they were deployed to a guerrilla warfare situation like Iraq.
“If you’ve trained a woman to be a crew chief, but then you deploy and tell her, ‘You can’t go,’ she’s going to say, ‘I’m as good as they [men] are,’ and she’s not going to take that any more,” said Vaught, president of the board of Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. “You can’t escape where society is.”
Vaught recalled a conversation with the mother of Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, who was killed during an ambush of a supply convoy on March, 23, 2003 -- the attack in which Pfc. Jessica Lynch was wounded. Vaught said Piestewa’s mother had refused to sign the petition protesting the assignment of women to combat.
“She said: ‘We shouldn’t place that restriction on women. That is a right to choose. And that’s what Lori chose to do. It’s our responsibility as a family to support her,’ ” Vaught said.
Donnelly, who sponsored the petition, said that women in combat faced “unequal and greater risks,” adding: “Few women have the strength to cope with physical burdens.” She said female prisoners of war were raped or sexually tortured far more often than male prisoners.
For women, the conflict in Iraq has been a watershed. Never before have women been so directly exposed to enemy attack. In previous wars, the relative handful of women killed by direct enemy fire were nurses in noncombat roles.
In World War II, for instance, six nurses were killed at the Anzio beachhead when Nazi warplanes attacked a field hospital, and six other nurses died when a Japanese kamikaze plane slammed into a hospital ship in the South Pacific. In the first Gulf War, three female Army soldiers died in an Iraqi missile attack on a barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Eight military women died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.
All were serving in noncombat positions presumed to be safe from attack. In Iraq, on the other hand, the 10 women killed by direct enemy fire were at or near an ever-shifting front, serving in positions that exposed them to attack.
Four female soldiers, including Voelz, were killed by IEDs -- improvised explosive devices -- or roadside bombs or booby traps; three were riding in convoys when their vehicles were hit. Four female soldiers died in helicopters shot down by enemy ground fire; three were passengers and one was a pilot. One female soldier, a military policewoman, died in a mortar attack. Another, Piestewa, was in a supply convoy that was ambushed.
The other six women who died in Iraq were killed in accidents or as a result of other “noncombat injuries,” according to the Pentagon.
Women have served in wars as nurses since the Revolutionary War, although some disguised themselves as men and served as soldiers, particularly during the Civil War. In 1942, the Army created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, designed to provide women a way to perform the stateside duties of men sent overseas.
But by 1943, commanders overseas began to request that WAACs be sent to fill such behind-the-lines jobs as telephone, radio and telegraph operators, according to Judy Bellafaire, a military historian. In mid-1943, Congress created the Women’s Army Corps, for the first time making women officially a part of the Army rather than an auxiliary corps. The Navy, Coast Guard and Marines had established corps of women in uniform for stateside duty, but only for the duration of the war.
By the end of World War II, Bellafaire said, Army women had served in virtually every overseas theater: North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, the Philippines, Australia, New Guinea and Burma. But it wasn’t until the Iraq war that women began to die just as often from enemy attack as from accidents -- the principal cause of deaths for female soldiers before last year.
Almost a decade after Congress lifted restrictions on women serving on planes and ships in combat situations, the matter is still controversial, Bellafaire said.
“A lot of it has to do with the whole issue of physical strength -- whether women would be able to physically handle assignments,” Bellafaire said. While more men than women are physically capable of performing challenging assignments, she said, many female soldiers are strong and fit enough to do the job.
“There are some men who might be very highly skilled intelligence analysts or highly skilled behind the computer who could not physically qualify for a more dangerous or demanding assignment,” Bellafaire said.
Bellafaire said she had not detected any backlash over the unprecedented number of women killed by attacks in Iraq. “It’s impossible to say that a female casualty is a worse tragedy than a male casualty,” she said. “Every casualty means a family somewhere is devastated.”
At the two-story Fahnestock home, reminders of Kimberly are everywhere. There are framed photos of her at a quarter horse competition, with her pet dogs, in her protective ordnance disposal suit, with her fellow ordnance disposal soldiers and in a military dress uniform with her soldier-husband.
In a scrapbook is a handwritten letter from Spec. Richard Brevard, one of the soldiers who escorted Kimberly to the site of the explosive device made from tank shells taped to an electrical tower the night of Dec. 13. When Voelz went to inspect the device, the tape snapped and the tank rounds dropped and exploded, her father said.
“She was all about getting the job done right and as fast as possible while being safe,” Brevard wrote to the Fahnestocks. After the explosion, which nearly severed her left leg, Kimberly “even made the effort to tell us ‘Thank you’ before we left,” he wrote. He added: “Thank you for raising such a wonderful daughter.”
Kimberly was taken to a military hospital near Baghdad, where her lower leg was amputated. Max Voelz, who was on duty in Iraq, rushed to the hospital. She died in his arms that morning; he removed the wedding ring from her finger, her parents said.
The couple met during ordnance disposal training and married in 1999. They had recently reenlisted, the Fahnestocks said. Kimberly’s memorial service was held in the same church where she was married, and she is buried nearby in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery.
The bomb was the 41st explosive device Kimberly had encountered during her three months in Iraq. She told her parents several times how much she loved her job and the military life, but she never told them not to worry. She had confidence in her training, her father said.
Her daughter was a tomboy who broke her fingers falling from a horse and once put a chokehold on a male soldier in training, Carol Fahnestock said, but she did not consider herself a pioneer. “She just wanted to be No. 1 at everything,” she said.