When Sgt. Isela Rubalcava's body arrived at the airport from Iraq, her mother wailed like a child. "I don't want to see her like this," Maria Isela Rubalcava cried out in Spanish, a priest at the scene said. "Why, Isela, why? Get up, get up! Let's go home."
By the time a funeral Mass was celebrated last week at St. Patrick's Church in nearby Canutillo, the Rev. Manny Marrufo said, Maria Rubalcava had accepted the reality that her daughter was gone, dead of shrapnel wounds she suffered when a mortar round exploded during an attack in Mosul on May 8. It was three days before her 26th birthday.
Rubalcava was one of 20 female U.S. service members to die so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom -- the highest number of U.S. military women to die in a combat operation since World War II, military historians said. The dead include Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, who was killed in an ambush in the first days of the invasion, and Pfc. Leslie D. Jackson, 18, of Richmond, who was killed Thursday when her vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. Others died in helicopter crashes, or vehicle accidents, or when guns accidentally went off, or while trying to defuse bombs.
In addition, 162 women have been wounded in Iraq, 99 of them too badly to return to duty, according to the Defense Department. And two of the most prominent faces of the war belong to Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was taken prisoner and then rescued early in the war, and Pfc. Lynndie England, who recently turned up in photographs documenting the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
For decades, Defense Department regulations kept military women away from direct action, out of fear that the American public would echo the cries of Maria Isela Rubalcava -- "I don't want to see her like this" -- when it came to women dying in combat. But when those rules changed in the mid-1990s, few people complained. And now, with more women serving in what the military calls "at-risk" jobs in Iraq, and more of them becoming casualties, the public has largely remained silent.
Women who monitor gender roles in the military are divided over what this means.
Supporters of equality between men and women in the ranks say it reflects a great leap forward for a society striving for equal rights. "There's a shift in the feeling about women," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. "People think she's doing her own thing."
"There's been a rethinking by parents," Vaught said. "They ask themselves, 'Do I value my daughter's life more than my son's life?' As a parent, I don't know how to answer that question."
As far as Phyllis Schlafly is concerned, the answer is simple. "I think it's uncivilized," said Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum. She called gender equality in the military a giant step backward.
"I think it's social experimentation, and I don't think it's going to help us win the war," she said. "They want to masculize the women and feminize the men, so that we're a gender-neutral society."
If women continue to die, said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a think tank based in Livonia, Mich., the debate will almost certainly be sharpened.
"What we're seeing now with the use of women in the military is unprecedented, but here we are," Donnelly said. She said one of her concerns is that single mothers are being killed. Piestewa, for example, left behind two children.
"We are asking these policies to be reassessed," Donnelly said.
Women's current place in the military may be traced to legal changes beginning in 1948, when Congress passed the Armed Forces Integration Act, which gave women regular and reserve status in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. At the same time, the law limited women's presence in those branches to 2 percent of the forces and stipulated that women could not serve on ships and aircraft that engaged in combat.
Twenty years later, the ceiling was lifted on the number of women who could serve, but the other restrictions remained. It was not until 1992 that the United States repealed the laws that kept women out of combat aircraft. Two years later, then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin led a repeal of the Defense Department risk rule. The definition of direct ground combat changed, and new rules allowed women to serve in all units except those directly involved in fighting, such as armor, infantry, Ranger and field artillery battalions.
In 1991, women made up only 11 percent of the military, but now they account for 15 percent, according to the Defense Department. One of seven U.S. troops in Iraq is a woman. Women there have served on Patriot missile batteries, on military police patrols and in other support roles that place them dangerously close to the enemy. In Iraq, moreover, the dangers have been compounded by the guerrilla nature of the postwar insurgency.
Parents of women who have died there speak of their daughters -- and other military women -- with pride. "Personally, I think some of them are better than men," said Lisa Frye, mother of Nicole Frye, an Army reservist from Wisconsin who was killed in February at age 19 after a mortar round struck her convoy. "She was really good with a rifle, an expert marksman. Her fiance wasn't that good. He's in the National Guard."
Nicole's death "ripped my heart right out of my body," Frye said, but in the same breath she added: "We were really proud of her and what she accomplished, really proud, and we still are."
Frye's sentiment was echoed by John Witmer, whose daughter Michelle was shot to death atop a Humvee while laying down ground fire to protect her unit, the 32nd Military Police Company. She was 20.
John Witmer said Michelle and his other two daughters, Rachel and Charity, Michelle's twin, knew exactly what they were getting into when they volunteered with the Army National Guard in New Berlin, Wis.
"They were clear . . . that they were going to be in that situation," Witmer said. "Out of respect for my daughters, they knew what their job was going to be, and they did the job well."
Not every woman is doing a great job, Schlafly said. She said the photograph of England holding a leash attached to the neck of an Iraqi prisoner appalled her. "This later picture is a feminist fantasy," she said. "That's how feminists think about men."
Good and bad
Retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military Project, said the photographs have nothing to do with gender. They show only that women are capable of making the same mistakes as men.
"We are seeing women POWs, women with their legs blown off, women who are heroes," Manning said. "And we're also seeing the dark side of it. . . . The pictures themselves are horrific. You think, 'Oh, my God, how is this going to be translated?' "
The fact that England is a woman helped inflame the Arab world, where the sight of men being humiliated by women is anathema, Donnelly said.
Sgt. Susan Sonnheim, who was wounded when a bomb detonated in Baghdad and threw her 10 feet into the air, said women are as prepared as men to take their place in the ranks. "We did the same training as men," said Sonnheim, 45, of Franklin, Wis., who served with Michelle Witmer in the 32nd Military Police Company before she was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District. "If you can't pull your weight, you wouldn't be there. I had a heavy backpack. A heavy ammo belt. It weighed more than me. But I did it."
"I'm sure they're saying that because women never really encountered combat, and now that they are, it's hard for them to fathom," Sonnheim said. "But they're fighting, and they're dying."
Supporters and opponents of placing women in "at-risk" jobs agree on at least one thing: Women do have a place in a volunteer military. Whenever American men have marched to war, women followed, according to a thumbnail history compiled by the Defense Department.
History of women at war
Margaret Corbin took charge of a cannon after her husband fell in the Revolutionary War. Two years later, in 1778, Deborah Samson disguised herself as a man, enlisted in the Continental Army, and was twice wounded in combat. Both women were awarded military pensions.
Women fought in the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. At least 36,000 women served in World War I, and 400,000 took part in World War II. In the Pacific Theater, 458 women died and 80 nurses were prisoners of war.
Spec. Tyanna Avery-Felder had been afraid to go to Iraq, but she toughed it out, said her father, Ray Avery. She seemed safe behind the front lines, working as a cook and a helper in the mess hall. But her convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device on April 7, the Army said, and she died at 22.
"I couldn't really believe it," Avery said. "She was nine days from coming home."
Sometimes, he said in a breaking voice, "I feel that females shouldn't be in that situation, shouldn't be in combat. They're capable. People who haven't been put in this situation don't know how really painful it is to lose someone, whether it's a son or daughter."
Lori Witmer, mother of Michelle, said she believes that losing a daughter is harder than losing a son, but that she would never have intervened in Michelle's decision to serve.
Isela Rubalcava was the only daughter in her family. As her body arrived at El Paso International Airport last week, Marrufo led the family in prayers. "She is the first woman from El Paso that had died in combat," Marrufo said. "I think she's unique in that sense."
Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.