Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the war on terror most Americans have never seen.
General Order No. 1 prohibits any inappropriate contact between female and male service members. Contractors and servicemen fall under this order. These are the female quarters at Kandahar Air Field.
BAGRAM AIRBASE, Afghanistan – All American troops stationed in Afghanistan know Bagram, because they’ve landed there or are familiar with its reputation. BAF, Bagram Air Field, is a mega-base growing in the heart of Afghanistan. Despite technically being in a war zone, the former Russian base, which was commandeered by the Taliban and used to fight off American forces in 2001, is very much like Any Town USA. There is traffic in the morning as commuters try to get to work, there is a “neighborhood” where everyone comes to do their shopping, and there is gossip.
An enlisted woman whose tour was about to come to an end told me her story. She was being sent home because a man was caught in her living quarters. She insisted the man was legitimately in her room and contended there was no violation of General Order No. 1.
The order says: “Personnel are prohibited from entering the living space of the opposite sex, with the exception of personnel married to each other, unless for official military business. If entry is required for official military business, the door must remain open at all times.”
The servicewoman was to be sent home the very next day, but she mentioned something surprising, a rumor she had heard.
“This year alone, they’ve had 55 pregnancies” of American servicewomen in Afghanistan.
Pregnancy is incompatible with combat duty and a one-way ticket home.
On May 23, 2003, a Marine staff sergeant gave birth aboard the USS Boxer, an amphibious vessel deployed in a war zone near Kuwait. Today pregnancy tests are mandatory before deploying to Iraq or Kuwait, but some of these 55 pregnancies took place long after these women had begun their 12-15 month deployments. At least some of these servicewomen became pregnant while deployed.
Sexual assault and harassment are a major concern for the military, and awareness classes are mandatory. Chief Warrant Officer and pilot Demetrio Castro of Texas instructs members of the Task Force Corsair Dustoff Medevac unit before the soldiers return home to Fort Bragg
“Without the General Order, this place, BAF, would be an enforcement nightmare,” said Chaplain William Laigaie of the 82nd Airborne and senior chaplain in country.
The General Order says, “Sexual relations in a deployed environment have a degrading effect on unit cohesion, morale, good order and discipline, and jeopardizes unit readiness as well as mission accomplishment. Therefore, sexual relations and intimate behavior between individuals not married to each other are prohibited.”
A pregnant women must be evacuated back to the states and usually face some kind of disciplinary action, at the discretion of her command. It’s possible and probable that some women became pregnant while on “R and R” – the 12-18 days of leave about halfway through a deployment – meaning some women may have become pregnant on purpose.
“It is unrealistic to expect single, consenting adults (especially the younger ones) to give up their right to have (or continue to have, in the case of a previously existing relationship) an intimate relationship simply because they are here instead of at home,” said Maj. Jennifer Caci, the CJTF-82/RC-East Environmental Science Officer, who confirmed the rumor of pregnant servicewomen in Afghanistan.
This is the military version of the Culture War, where the consequences aren’t just about individual rights but the readiness and capabilities of the nation’s defense.
Lt. Col. David Accetta, senior public affairs officer in Afghanistan, refused to comment specifically on pregnancies, due to privacy issues.
“We do enforce General Order No. 1, and violators are subject to the UCMJ, Uniform Code of Military Justice,” said Accetta, emphasizing that a male soldier, in such a case, would also be subject to punishment.
Chaplain Laigaie spoke of a “modicum of discipline and order important for the mission in Afghanistan.” The chaplain is part of a unique unit, and a veteran of the Persian Gulf war. Airborne trained, he could actually lead the organization of men jumping out of airplanes, but even he seemed leery of the current threat to troop morale. The chaplain also confirmed the 55 pregnancies, as did two other officers who preferred to remain anonymous.
Co-Ed bathroom. There are fewer females attached to this aviation unit, so some facilities need to be shared. The sign reads “male”, on one side, and “female” on the other.
Major Caci has protested the enforcement of General Order No. 1, and is much more concerned with women’s health issues in a combat zone.
“My job is to protect the health of the soldier,” said Caci, who monitors health threats from non-battle injury and is the senior officer of preventive medicine in Afghanistan.
“The 15-month deployments are already putting female soldiers at some level of increased risk because they go extended periods without well-woman exams, but when you add to it the potential of being exposed to STDs … .”
After seeing the effects of the policy during her two tours in Iraq and her current tour in Afghanistan, Caci believes strongly in her cause and is even willing to voice her opinion despite the official policy.
She recommends that condoms be made available, free of charge, to all servicemen, not just to prevent pregnancies – women in the military cannot be denied birth control pills even when deployed – but to prevent diseases that could have long-term effects, especially for women. In the Post Exchange, or PX, condoms are sold, but it is common to see boxes on the shelves ripped open, and the condoms stolen. Soldiers may be hesitant to wait in line to purchase an item they are not supposed to have any use for.
In Iraq, on Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs, there are plenty of posters and warnings to dissuade sexual harassment and prevent possible sexual assault. Females are advised not to walk in poorly lit areas or are encouraged to be in pairs or groups when out at night. In Bagram, I saw no such signs.
Bagram is deceptively normal, beside the typical fast food and bazaars selling everything from Persian rugs to intricate replicas of ancient swords. The barbershops are called beauty salons, where haircuts cost twice as much as in Iraq.
In these beauty shops, manicures and facials are on the menu of services, as are massages by the Russian-speaking Uzbek and Tajik women. It’s all legit – a supervisor makes sure no cubicle or table is too private – but the lights are turned low and the clients lay on massage tables, in their shorts or boxer underwear. The base hospital also has a bucket filled with free condoms for anyone to pick up.
“There is a measure of hypocrisy in the policy,” said Laigaie. “We ask the troops to obey the rule, but this kind of looks the other way,” he lamented.
The co-ed military
In some ways, the American military is a reflection of the society it protects. The chaplain sees a downward slope in the moral fiber of the services. Things have changed over the two decades since he was commissioned as an officer.
“If you allowed soldiers to form these types of sexual relationships, you’d hurt the unit morale,” he insists. “Women would have inappropriate pressures placed on them.”
But not everyone agrees.
“There are very reasonable clinical and public health concerns associated with punitive policies that prohibit sexual activity,” said Capt. Remington Nevin, the former preventive medicine staff physician assigned to CJTF-82 at Bagram.
Women have served during wartime in various capacities, but in World War II, due to the need for males on the frontlines, females were given military occupations, mostly stateside. Women became even more integrated into the armed forces with subsequent conflicts. Today, females are still prohibited from direct combat in infantry, tank, battleship, submarine, artillery and special forces units. But they are present throughout the theater and heavily concentrated “in garrison” on bases like Bagram and Kandahar, where the relatively comfortable living conditions provide for luxuries like privacy and discretion.
“A lot of women in the military have a radical edge,” said the chaplain.
The men who join the military are a small segment of the general population; a self-selected group who have agreed to put their lives on the line and willingly deploy into a war zone for a variety of reasons. If these men are few and unique, the females who joins the military are even more so.
Comprising just 12 percent of the total armed forces – more in some services than others – females in the military must overcome many more obstacles and social stigmas before joining. There are approximately 1,700 American women deployed in the Afghan theater of operations. And where males often bond during deployments, some females have had a different experience.
“I didn’t really get along with a lot of the other females here on base,” said the servicewoman in the parking lot who initially told me of the rumors of 55 pregnancies since early this year.
In fact, it is probable that another female soldier alerted the authorities to the presence of the male in her quarters. She was already speaking in the past tense of her ruptured deployment to Afghanistan and the probability of discipline once back in the States. Limiting your off-hour friendships to the few women on base does put females in theater at a social disadvantage.
Maj. Caci herself conceded that she wished there was more solidarity among the females deployed.
“It’d be great if the women were nicer to each other here,” she said.
But the major insists that General Order No. 1 is a real health threat and unfairly penalizes females in the military.
“There are a lot of people here who would like me to just shut up about this, but there is simply too much evidence out there that this policy endangers our soldiers, especially the females,” she said. “It’s not realistic to expect men and women of this age to abstain.”
Chaplain Laigaie sees a bigger issue – recruiting.
“If your daughter is going to join the military and have sex in a combat zone, the military will not be able to attract the quality of individual we need,” he said.
As the chaplain, Laigaie formally and informally counsels all soldiers. He’s very aware of how the current “hook-up” culture has an after-effect on soldiers later in life
“They have problems forming more permanent intimate bonds; divorce rates are higher,” he said.
Laigaie insists that being in a war zone requires a different set of rules that do not apply to peace-time life back home.
“All of GO 1 deals with moral issues,” he said. “Beside banning sexual relations, the first General Order also bans the possession of pornography, the consumption of alcohol, gambling and religious proselytizing.
“A pregnant female will be out of Afghanistan in 48 to 72 hours,” said Lt. Col. Accetta, who emphasized that a soldier found in this condition will not be forced out of the military.
In a subsequent e-mail, Caci updated the tally.
“By the way, in case you are interested, there were seven pregnancies in November and already one in December, bringing the total to 63,” she said.
“This policy is putting soldiers at risk.”
Caci was referring to the detrimental effects of long-term scars from sexual behavior, but despite the differences of opinion, Laigaie insisted he had exactly the same concern.
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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.