WASHINGTON - Sgt. Tara Jackson was riding shotgun this spring in a U.S. Army supply convoy snaking through the streets of Fallujah.
A truck up ahead struck a roadside bomb and enemy small arms fire flashed, she recalled, and she trained her M-16 assault rifle toward the enemy.
Emptying one clip, she said, she slammed in another and kept firing.
Jackson, a 32-year-old Baltimore native and member of the Army National Guard's 1229th Transportation Company from Parkville, said she was in combat for about one minute.
When the Army announces its new Combat Action Badge for soldiers who came under and returned fire, Jackson could qualify.
The rules haven't changed - women still may not serve in direct combat posts. But the badge is another acknowledgement of an issue that has troubled Congress and promises to persist: female soldiers in the line of fire in Iraq.
Though she received hostile-fire pay and could earn the badge, Jackson does not think women should be assigned to ground combat units.
"I don't see any irony in it," said Jackson, who now works on Guard recruiting.
"Women can continue to make contributions to the armed forces without serving in those positions."
Since 1994, women have been barred from so-called direct combat posts - such as infantry, armor, cannon artillery and Special Forces - whose primary mission is to engage in ground fighting. The military also excludes women from support units that remain with ground combat units.
But with the stubborn insurgency in Iraq, there are more random attacks and a less clear delineation between front and rear lines.
Thousands of women are woven into the fabric of the U.S. military presence in supportive roles, flying helicopters, serving as MPs and setting up communications for Iraqi units. And there are cultural sensitivities that bring female soldiers closer to danger, such as patting down Iraqi women during operations in Iraq's teeming cities.
Moreover, with a years-long U.S. military commitment under way and multiple tours for all soldiers, the chance of women coming under fire is higher than ever before.
Jackson considers herself a "support soldier," but she emphasizes the word soldier. Female soldiers can find themselves engaging the enemy, particularly during these times of shadowy insurgents and blurry notions of what constitutes front-line fighting.
"One day you may be in combat," she said, "even though you're not an infantryman. We're not training just for fun. We're training for the inevitable."
Sgt. Lorie Jewell, a 40-year-old Army journalist serving in Baghdad, sees it differently.
She has come under fire reporting from Mosul, in northern Iraq, and knows a mortar round could kill her inside the supposedly safe confines of Baghdad's Green Zone, where top U.S. officials are based. She has no interest in a front-line position but believes they should be open to women who can make the grade.
"I think [women] should be anywhere they want to be, as long as they're qualified to be there," she said in a phone interview from Baghdad.
"What is combat anymore? It's hard to define when you're here."
Still, Army officers say that in some cases, female soldiers, such as medics and military police, are being dispatched by officers to ground units in Iraq in apparent violation of regulations because of the overstretched nature of U.S. forces. If there's a mission and a qualified woman is available, she is sent.
"I don't think there's any desire to stick a thumb in the eye of the regulations," said one female officer, who requested anonymity, adding, "There's some winking and nodding."
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative watchdog group, said she, too, has heard reports of female soldiers, such as MPs, who appear to be skirting the decade-old regulations:
"They've been patrolling, going door to door, similar to infantry functions. This has got to be looked at very closely."
Last month, this dormant issue of women in combat broke into the open when conservatives on the House Armed Services Committee tried unsuccessfully to bar women from mixed-sex "forward support" companies. These units, which provide everything from food to fuel, are assigned to combat battalions.
"The nation should not put women into the front lines of combat," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and Army veteran who chairs the committee. "Forward support companies go forward into battle. That is why they are labeled 'forward' support companies. The American people have never wanted to have women in combat."
Others, particularly Democrats, said such a move would impede the progress of women in the military and failed to take into account the realities of the current fight, where every soldier in Iraq - male or female - could face either a roadside bomb or armed attack.
"Women will be at risk, even if they say, 'No, we're not going to assign you to this forward support company.' If you're a woman driving a water truck or serving lunch in the mess tent, you can be ambushed or attacked at any time," said Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican and Air Force Academy graduate.
Top Army officials counter that they are complying with regulations and that the House measure would have been disruptive to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. If adopted, the House measure would have meant that women - who account for 15 percent of Army soldiers - would be barred from about 22,000 Army jobs they now hold.
The Armed Services Committee amendment took out any mention of banning women from forward support companies. Instead, the full House voted to instruct Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to make sure that a forthcoming Army reorganization plan complies with the ban on women in ground combat units and support companies that accompany front-line fighting units.
"Congress is finally thinking about the issue," said Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness.
Major change unlikely
The Senate has yet to address the House amendment. But recently, five female senators, including Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, introduced a non-binding resolution that would reject any move to roll back military jobs - such as those in forward support companies - that are open to women.
While it appears Congress is unlikely now to make a drastic change in the role of women in the military, lawmakers have once again raised a difficult issue that has simmered for at least 15 years.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, positions as pilots on attack aircraft - such as the F-18 Hornet and the Army's Apache helicopter - were opened to women, though then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin barred women from "tip of the spear" ground combat units, a ban that remains in effect.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher said she and other House members believe it's time to revisit the question of which jobs should be open to women, perhaps through creation of a commission that would examine the issue in light of more recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is a time for us to look to expand opportunities for women to serve and understand the new battlefield environment," the California Democrat said in an interview.
Jewell, the Army journalist, agrees that the nature of insurgent warfare raises new questions about whether women should be barred from certain jobs. "It doesn't make sense to me," she said. "Where is the front line?"
Medals for bravery
Indeed, a small number of women have been awarded medals for bravery under fire. Army Capt. Kellie J. McCoy earned a Bronze Star for valor when her convoy was attacked in September 2003. She gathered fellow paratroops from the 82nd Airborne Division and was able to direct fire against the enemy, according to her medal citation, which said that at least one enemy was killed and that McCoy was able to save all her soldiers.
But several male Army officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan dismiss the notion that front lines in Iraq are so vague.
One, who requested anonymity, pointed to last fall's sweep of Fallujah by Marine and Army infantry units. The building-to-building fight led both to the collapse of the insurgent stronghold and a spike in U.S. casualties.
"That's the front line," he said.
Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University military sociologist, agreed. While a stubborn insurgency like the one in Iraq blurs the notion of where a soldier will find combat, "there are front lines," he said.
Women make up a relatively small number of the 1,692 American military deaths in Iraq, he said. Thirty-two female soldiers have died, 22 from hostile fire, out of about 13,000 Army women serving in the region.
Moskos said there is "a strong consensus" in the United States that women should not be in direct ground combat units and predicted that any change in that policy was unlikely. Most women lack the upper body strength or lung capacity needed for the heavy lifting, grueling pace and stamina that ground combat demands, he said.
One female Army officer, who supports the ban on women in ground combat units, said there was no getting around the basic physical differences between the average man and woman.
She remembered being on a training mission, where she decided to help some male soldiers in a combat support job that required lifting 100-pound loads. Though she was in good shape, she found she could not keep up with the men.
"Most women in the Army understand their physical limitations and would not want to jeopardize the mission," contended the officer, who spoke on condition she not be identified.
In the U.S. military, men and women are required to meet different physical performance standards. That's not the case, however, in Britain.
A recent British study, completed by the independent Adult Learning Inspectorate for the Ministry of Defense, found that injuries to women in military training have more than doubled since 1998, when female recruits were required to meet the same physical standards as men.
Among women in the U.S. Army, as many as half believe they should be allowed to prove themselves in ground combat, according to an opinion survey conducted by sociologist Moskos earlier this year.
The poll of about 400 U.S. soldiers in Iraq found that 41 percent of male soldiers and 31 percent of females believe women should continue to be excluded from a direct combat role.
But when asked whether qualified women should be allowed to volunteer for combat, 24 percent of the men and 51 percent of the women said yes.
Jewell, the Army journalist, recalled her recent conversation with a 22-year-old Marine in Iraq, who said he was opposed to allowing women in traditional "men-only" combat jobs.
He thought "they couldn't keep up, and their inability to do so would harm the rest of the unit," Jewell said.
"He reluctantly agreed that if they were able to meet the exact same standards as the men, and prove they could keep up, that they should be allowed to pursue the job they want."
But the Marine went on to say that he would have a "hard time" serving beside a woman in combat because, he explained, his "natural instinct would be to try to take care of her."
Jewell added, "I would hope he would be focused on the mission."