Combat rules don't keep women off battlefield

On Thursday, the Pentagon will announce a new policy that will open up thousands of support jobs for women in the military. Currently, women are barred from from certain infantry and ground combat units. But as CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports, the policy is at odds with battlefield reality.

Lt. Dawn Halfaker was barred from serving alongside men in ground combat when she went to Iraq in 2004 as commander of a military police platoon. But that didn't keep her out of the fighting.

Halfaker: "I was on the front lines every day for five months."

Martin: "You were busting down doors?"

Halfaker: "Literally yes. We were literally busting down doors."

Martin: "You were doing all of the combat operations of an infantryman, it sounds like."

Halfaker: "We were operating side by side with the infantry ... we used a lot of the same weapons. We did a lot of the same missions."

Halfaker's platoon, which had three other women in it, ran over 100 combat missions.

"I had 33 people's lives in my hands and I never once doubted sending a female on a mission, or giving them a certain set of responsibilities," said Halfaker.

That included loaning her best machine gunner to a special operations unit.

"Every time they would request a specific gunner and it was always a female to man the .50 cal," said Halfaker.

That gunner was Spc. Victoria Rivers.

"It was just kind of euphoric, working side by side with some special forces team. It was pretty cool," said Rivers.

"She was just top notch," said Halfaker. "Great soldier and it was just funny to see this tiny little female up there manning the .50 cal and just fitting in with the special ops guys."

That mission went off without a hitch. But later, Rivers and Halfaker were on a regular MP patrol when Halfaker's Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

"There was this big fireball and black smoke billowing out from underneath the truck and the doors of the Humvee," said Rivers.

"I was on the wrong end of an RPG and had quite a tangle with it. And it came through my shoulder," Halfaker recalled.

She lost her entire right arm

Both women are out of the army now. Halfaker is running her own company in Virginia. Rivers is studying to become a nurse in Oklahoma.

Until now, Rivers has never talked about her combat experience to anyone outside her immediate family.

"Why did you decide to talk about it this time?" Martin asked her.

"Because I think people need to realize that it's not just the men getting hurt," she said, brushing a tear. "It's the women too."

Nobody told the enemy American women are barred from serving in combat.

The Pentagon told CBS News that in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has suffered 144 women killed in action and 853 wounded.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.