The chaos that unfolded over the next few hours was not a typical day for Sergeant Pearsall. But under the Pentagon’s decision to allow women into front-line combat units, officially announced Thursday, it could become much closer to the norm for women in American uniforms.
As Sergeant Pearsall tells the story, her vehicle came under intense fire that day in 2007, near the city of Baquba. The male soldiers in her carrier had already dashed out to join the fight, so she jumped onto the machine gun and began returning fire.
Outside a soldier lay unconscious. Sergeant Pearsall opened the rear door and crawled to the man, who was 6-foot-2 and more than 200 pounds, twice her weight. From behind him, she clasped him in a bear hug and dragged him toward the vehicle. She fell once, then again. Somehow, she hauled him into the armored safety of the carrier.
After tearing off his protective vest, she realized his carotid artery had been torn by shrapnel. As blood spurted all over, she closed her eyes, stuck her fingers into his neck and squeezed. He screamed, and she thanked the heavens. He was still kicking.
What happened next seemed almost cinematic. Emerging from a purplish haze outside, a medic jumped into the carrier and set his kit beside her. “Are you a medic?” he asked.
Heck no, Sergeant Pearsall replied. “I’m the photographer.”
The question that now looms over the Pentagon as it moves toward full gender integration is whether female service members like Sergeant Pearsall, for all their bravery under fire, can perform the same dangerous and physically demanding tasks day in and day out, for weeks at a time, as permanent members of ground combat units like the infantry or armored cavalry.
Since 1994, women have technically been barred from serving in those front-line units. But throughout the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, women…