Video: Women in combat

By David Gregory Chief White House correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/3/2006 7:31:44 PM ET 2006-10-03T23:31:44

On a crisp fall day, mourners at West Point came to mark a sad milestone. 2nd Lt. Emily Perez became the first female graduate of this storied military academy to die in Iraq. The 23-year-old was struck by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad.

Her parents, Daniel and Vicki, remember a born leader.

"Emily led from the front," says Daniel Perez. "She never shirked any of her responsibilities. She was a soldier's soldier."

For all the debate about whether women belong on the front lines, they are there — fighting and dying in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Perez was the 64th killed in action. By comparison, only eight women were killed in Vietnam.

Lauri Toughy is a decorated staff sergeant in the National Guard.

"They're dying, they're losing limbs, they're firing their weapons, they're having IEDs go off that are injuring them or their vehicles, they are having mortars launched at them," Toughy says. "To me, that's the definition of combat."

The military bars women from serving in ground combat forces. The feeling's been that women would undermine the bond of an all-male unit, wouldn't be strong enough, and that the public couldn't stomach women dying in war.

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In combat zones like Iraq there are no safe areas. And with the military stretched so thin, experts say more woman are on the front lines out of necessity.

"To paraphrase the secretary of defense, you go to war with the troops you got and 15 percent are women," says Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain now with the Women's Research and Education Institute.

Including Army medic Kelly Kenyon, who was attached to an infantry unit.

"I really wanted to prove them wrong, show them we can do it," she says. "We are capable, look at what we can do."

Look at what Lt. Perez did.

"What Emily showed me was that it didn't make a difference whether you were man or a female, or a woman," says David Perez. "Once the task was out there, she would do whatever needed to be done to make sure that task was accomplished."

A soldier's soldier — a woman — fighting an enemy that makes no distinction.

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