A Woman's Place Is at the Front

updated 01/22/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1990 01:00AM

Two weeks after the U.S. invasion, danger still hung thick in the air of Panama City. Some of Manuel Noriega's thugs remained on the loose, hunted by American troops and hunting them in return. Word was spreading among U.S. soldiers that one of their number had just been killed by a sniper; the Army said later that the report was incorrect. So the adrenaline was pumping as Second Lieutenant Ledwith's platoon of the 503rd Military Police Battalion moved into the narrow, forbidding streets of the city's Catedral district for a nighttime raid. "We're going to the house of one of the most wanted people in Panama, one of Noriega's men, to search it," Staff Sergeant Hope explained. Tensely the soldiers scanned the street, the buildings, the faces of the people, for any sign of danger, any warning of attack. "It could happen any minute," Staff Sergeant Taylor said quietly, with the wisdom of an NCO blooded by combat.

These were not veterans of battles long past; they represent the Army of America's future, and they clearly came equipped for the task. Preparing to move into a building that might at any moment erupt with enemy fire, Lt. Sioban Ledwith, 22, of Artesia, Calif., Sgt. Elizabeth Hope, 28, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Sgt. Josephine Taylor, 35, of Bradenton, Fla., were showing themselves the kind of cool leaders any soldier would follow. "I'd trust them with my life," said Specialist David McCoy. In fact, he was doing just that.

The full implications of the Panama invasion and the capture of Manuel Noriega will no doubt be debated for years, but one nagging question may have been laid finally to rest: Should American women go armed into combat? In Panama, hundreds of women operated in the combat zone, and many came under enemy fire; for the first time, women led soldiers into action against an enemy. And, as Lt. Col. Mike Sullivan, commander of the 503rd, reported, "Not one woman washed out."

Army policy still keeps women from serving in units designated for combat, and an act of Congress forbids them from joining the combat sections of the Navy and Air Force. But since the mid-1970s they have served in support units such as the Military Police and the Signal Corps. The Panama action proved what military experts have long maintained—that in today's urban warfare, the line between combat and support troops quickly becomes blurred. Although the 503rd MPs arrived several hours after the first wave of troops on the early morning of Dec. 20, they hit the ground running. Fighting in the streets was heavy. Sergeant Hope and her men helped set up a perimeter around the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, taking and returning enemy fire that evening. At about the same time, Sergeant Taylor and her men also set up fields of fire as they defended public buildings from Noriega's desperate forces. Ask Lieutenant Ledwith how much enemy fire her troops received in those first days and she says simply, "Lots."

"I joined the Army because I wanted adventure," explains E-4 Cheryl Purdie, 25, of Wakefield, Va., as she drives her HMMWV jeep through the streets of Panama City on a daylight patrol. In the turret, a gunner sits at an M60 machine gun; riding shotgun is a Panamanian officer of the newly constituted national police. When Purdie enlisted five years ago and joined the MPs, she was looking for excitement, but not quite what she got. "I thought it would be something in the rear," she says, "like driving around in a patrol car. I didn't think someone would actually be shooting real rounds at me to kill me."

The day after the invasion, somebody was. "I drove this jeep off the plane," she says. "Then we set up at the Ministry of Finance. They were afraid that the [Noriega loyalist] Panamanian Defense Forces might try to take it. We were here through the night, and we came under sniper fire." As the long tropic evening dragged on, Purdie fired 10 or 15 rounds; in the end, the sniper got away, and no one was hurt.

Before that night, not even Cheryl Purdie knew whether she would behave differently than a man under fire. Now she does. "It was scary," she says candidly. "At first I thought that if I actually got out there and it came down to it, I would run and hide somewhere or freeze up, and some of my buddies would be out there left alone because I froze up. But when it all came down, I just started pumping. I didn't really think—it all came naturally."

As Purdie now realizes, fear knows no gender when the bullets start flying. "I was out there with one guy—he was really scared," she says. "Really, really scared; I think he was worse than I was. I thought he would freeze up. I could see the fear in his eyes." But no one in the squad froze, and when morning came, the ministry remained secure.

So did E-4 Purdie. "I feel more confident that I can go out there and perform my job in the field," she says. "I'd been following the news from Panama, and I had the feeling we would sooner or later have to come over here and straighten Noriega out. Besides his troops killing an American marine and bothering U.S. dependents, I thought it was important to get rid of his people who were selling drugs. I wanted to be part of that. I feel good about that."

"Everybody wants to talk about the women," Colonel Sullivan says. "But that's not the real story. The real story is what everybody here is doing." In a sense, the plain-talking Vietnam veteran is right. The 503rd, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., not only engaged the enemy in combat, it also set up a functioning police department for Panama, and even a night court where suspects are delivered to a Panamanian judge newly appointed by the elected government of President Guillermo Endara. (The battalion has some experience in this field, having previously reconstructed the criminal justice system on the island of St. Croix, which erupted in anarchy after Hurricane Hugo last September.) Both the men and the women of the 503rd do a job that to an outsider seems almost superhuman, given the conditions under which they must work. And it is obvious, merely from looking at these MPs, how the Army has changed; it seems that every fourth person—squad leader, machine gunner, private or file clerk—is a woman. "I don't know how many females I have in my battalion," Colonel Sullivan says. "I don't keep percentages of women or minorities or tall people or anything else. I can only tell you that the women are doing the same job as the men. If you're talking about going to the chin-up bar or doing push-ups, probably the females can't do as many. But when you're in combat, you don't do chin-ups and push-ups."

Two weeks ago, "when White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced that a woman, MP Capt. Linda Bray of Buckner, N.C., had led troops in combat, capturing a PDF attack-dog kennel, the story made headlines. At first officials seemed pleased by the attention. Then the Army reversed itself, refusing to allow the media access to Captain Bray or other women in Panama, apparently in the hope that the issue would just go away. "This is basically still a conservative, Christian country," one officer explains. "Americans don't want to see women being wounded or killed—and that's bound to happen if they're in combat." Army spokesmen reiterate that women are not officially assigned to combat, and they issued their own version of the incident involving Captain Bray, downplaying both the seriousness of the skirmish and her role in it. (Adding to the controversy was the Army's announcement that female troopers in Panama would not be eligible to wear the Combat Infantryman Badge.)

Most women who took part in the action feel they have made their mark nonetheless. "This has proved that women can survive in combat," says Sgt. Peggy Banks, 29, of Louisville, Ky., who helped secure government buildings on the night after the invasion. "If there are any females that want to go into combat, they should be allowed to."

Surprisingly, Sgt. Elizabeth Hope does not entirely agree, but her reasoning will not reinforce many male egos. "I think men have a tendency—and that is the way they were raised—to protect women," she says, clambering out of her HMMWV and shouldering her M16 in preparation for the raid on the Noriega man's house. "I think if it came down to it, they would try to protect women more than they would try to protect themselves. Women may be competent to take care of themselves in combat, but it comes down to men not being able to put their priorities straight."

With that, the platoon moves in, covering every entrance to the building. While the men stand by to cover her, Lieutenant Ledwith takes the point, rapping on each apartment door, displaying a search warrant from one of the new Panamanian judges and sharply demanding admittance. In a textbook-perfect exercise, Ledwith, Hope and the men fan out inside, swooping through rooms, spinning through doorways, ending up with backs to the wall as they burst into each new room. In one apartment after another, they find only the ordinary stuff of daily life—and startled families cleaning up after dinner.

Everything changes when they enter the last apartment. Sergeant Hope leads one of her men and a Panamanian policeman into the front bedroom and finds a leather satchel secured with a heavy padlock. The three women in the flat profess surprise at the satchel's very existence, while Hope carries it to the dining table and the policeman slices it open with a dagger.

"Whooooh," says Hope, as great, fist-thick bundles of U.S. currency spill onto the table.

"Don't let anybody go," commands Ledwith, and the men quickly seal the doors.

The Panamanian women offer a welter of explanations. One says the money was won in a lawsuit. Another claims it comes from a bank account. "Did she make an early withdrawal?" Hope asks drily.

The platoon goes by the book, frisking each of the women, then taking them into custody, with the lieutenant herself applying the flexible plastic handcuffs. Ledwith orders an exact count of the cash, and Hope totals it at $35,000—about 10 years' salary for many Panamanians. The lieutenant tells the sergeant not to let the money out of her sight; then, with prisoners in custody, they ride back to the old police station that the MPs are using as headquarters.

There, the MPs begin questioning the women separately and almost immediately come up with a break. One of the women tells them where to find the man who left the money—Rubin Torres, an officer in Noriega's Defense Forces. Ledwith rounds up Taylor and some of the men—Hope is still guarding the money—and sprints off to the address she has been given, a short distance away.

The men throw themselves against the heavy, double-hasped, padlocked door; the wood strains, but will not break. Neighbors gather to watch as the MPs batter the entrance again and again. "He is a bad man who lives here," one of them says. "One of Noriega's men. Very evil." The door still refuses to yield, so the soldiers smash in a wooden shutter over a window and crawl inside. Their suspect has fled, leaving behind only a handful of bullets, some uniforms hung neatly in a closet and a table with plates from a dinner long past. But Ledwith emerges triumphant, with a sheaf of photographs of the wanted man—one of them taken with Noriega himself. The scent of her quarry still fresh, she is a very happy officer. "I always wanted to be in the Army," says Ledwith, "and I always wanted to be a police officer, for as long as I can remember."

Just six months out of the University of Oregon, she has already seen combat, commanded a platoon and led other women into dangerous action. What has she learned about women soldiers? For the first time all night, her crisp professional demeanor disappears for a moment, and she breaks into a huge grin. "They're the best!" she says with a triumphant whoop.

With that, she strides briskly off into the night, back to her troops.

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