PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – When Holly Charette enlisted in the Marine Corps after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, her family was uneasy about her decision – and told her so.

“We just said that it’s dangerous, and things are getting crazier and crazier in the world,” Edward Roberts recalled after his stepdaughter’s death.

But the blonde former cheerleader wanted to join, motivated partly by a sense of patriotic duty and partly by a desire to make a difference.

The 21-year-old Marine from Rhode Island was killed June 23 when her convoy was ambushed by a suicide car bombing in Fallujah. It was the single largest attack on American female troops in Iraq, killing three women and three men.

Though Pentagon policy bars women from serving in direct combat roles, the nature of the war in Iraq, with no real front lines, has seen women soldiers take part in close-quarters combat more than in any previous conflict.

Charette’s death and the deaths of more than three dozen other servicewomen in Iraq has made it clear that women are very much a part of the war on the ground – even if they didn’t expect to be.

“It’s not like World War II where you go to the front, you dig in and you shoot at the enemy across a barbed-wire fence,” said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense.

Charette – who served as a mail carrier in Iraq and had said she planned to apply for a job at the U.S. Post Office when she left the military – was part of a team of Marines assigned to checkpoints in Fallujah.

She made an unlikely Marine, according to those who knew her.

Douglas McGunagle, who taught Charette in high school chemistry, said she wasn’t the type to carry a gun.

“She was beautiful, and she was very feminine,” McGunagle said.

Army Cpl. Carrie French, a 19-year-old ammunition specialist from Idaho, thought she was headed for a peacekeeping mission and never expected to go to Iraq, her boyfriend has said. French was killed June 5 when a bomb struck her vehicle.

Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester thought she would be patrolling, guarding and taking care of security when she headed to Iraq, according to her father, Jerry Hester, of Bowling Green, Ky. He said her job quickly became “more or less front-line combat.”

Last month, the 23-year-old became the first female soldier to win the Silver Star Medal, awarded for heroism in combat, since World War II. Her unit was ambushed but counterattacked through enemy fire, and she killed at least three insurgents with her rifle, according to her award citation.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with being a female. It’s about the duties I performed that day as a soldier,” Hester told the American Forces Press Service, a military-run information service.

Karen Johnson, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, said it was ridiculous to think that women in war could be shielded from danger.

“It’s our culture, which somehow says that women need to be protected and kept away from warfare,” Johnson said.

But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a group that studies military policy, said she believed most women in the military don’t want to be exposed to the same life-threatening combat as their male colleagues.

She said she believed women are not as physically capable as men of surviving combat unscathed.

“Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers survive in a close combat environment,” Donnelly said.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, who served administratively in Vietnam and is now president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, said enlisted women should not be restricted from combat, as long as they’re physically capable.

“The pay is the same for the same position, and I believe that when you go in, you go in to serve,” Vaught said. “If you’re assigned to a job that requires that you deploy and be in harm’s way, that’s part of being in the military.”

Roberts said his stepdaughter, Charette, never expressed fear of what lay ahead in Iraq.

“She just said that she knows what she wants to do and she was very strong-willed about it,” he said.

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