Public accepts female sailors’ deaths — for now

By THOMAS E. RICKS and STEVE VOGEL

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the tense hours after the bombing of the USS Cole on Oct. 12, Chris Ferretti was among the spouses who waited anxiously at Norfolk Naval Station for news about their loved ones aboard the crippled ship in faraway Yemen.

But unlike most of the others, Chris Ferretti is a man. When his wife, Petty Officer 2nd Class Loretta Lynn Taylor Ferretti, finally was able to call, she told him that she had been very lucky. Shortly before the blast, she decided to skip lunch in favor of a nap. She was asleep when the explosion hit the ship’s mess.

The attack on the Cole, which appears to have been the first major terrorist attack on a U.S. warship, also marked another milestone: It was the first time that women permanently assigned to a Navy combat ship have died in an attack on that ship, according to Lt. Jane Alexander, a Navy spokeswoman. She chose those words carefully because the Navy is not sure whether a female nurse ever was killed while serving temporarily on a warship.

Two of the 17 sailors who died aboard the Cole were women — Lakeina M. Francis, 19, of Woodleaf, N.C., and Lakiba Nicole Palmer, 22, of San Diego — a fact the country appears to have taken pretty much in stride. "Whether they’re male or female doesn’t matter," said Rear Adm. John Foley, commander of naval surface forces for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. "The focus has been on all Cole sailors."

"The story is that there is no story," said another senior Navy officer. "The media didn’t say, ‘Holy mackerel.’ "

But there is sharp disagreement among the experts about what this means.

One school says the large, and growing, role of women in the military is now widely accepted. "I think the American public has gotten used to women being killed in the line of duty, not only in the military, but as police officers," said Mady Wechsler Segal, a sociologist at the University of Maryland.

Retired Navy Capt. Georgia Sadler adds, "The public understands that people who serve in the military can be killed, regardless of their gender. Thus, the public is taking the deaths of women in stride, and, rightfully, mourning for all the casualties of the Cole as sailors and heroes."

The other, more conservative view is that the American people’s tolerance for the deaths of female soldiers and sailors has not been put to a full test.

"I suspect this is not yet the crossroads," said Cap Parlier, a retired Marine Corps test pilot.

In the Cole bombing, he noted, "the public never saw bodies, just a big hole in the side of the ship, a number of flag-draped caskets, some names and portrait photographs." He said he believes that the public will react vigorously when it someday sees photographs of "the semi-nude body of a female pilot being dragged through the streets of some Third World country."

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