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For Susan and Fred Alderson, both career Army officers, the possibility of a summons to war was always there, lurking on the fringes as the couple pursued their Army careers and went about the happy business of raising two small children.

"We knew it could happen, and discussed how we'd handle it," said Susan Alderson, 33, a major and surgical nurse commissioned in 1978.

Underlying these discussions were basic assumptions.

"It tended to be how I'd manage with the kids and house, how we would explain why Daddy had to fight for our country," she said. "For me, personally, it was a question of psychologically preparing myself for the day Fred would have to go fight somewhere."

They just naturally assumed the call would come for her husband, who is assigned to an elite Ranger unit. Susan Alderson specialized in cancer treatment at the military hospital in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Then came Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, and the massive deployment of American troops to Saudi Arabia that followed.

And it was Maj. Susan Alderson who received hurry-up marching orders to Saudi Arabia, where she joined the 5th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH, a unit that treats the wounded close to the fighting lines.

"Sure, I am a modern woman, a professional, but I have to admit it came as a shock, a real, real role reversal," said Alderson. "Here was Mommy going off to war. And there was Daddy packing her rucksack. Fred was so nervous, he repacked it six times.

"You want to be the tough female officer who can handle any missions, and it makes me really proud to see so many women out here showing they are made of the right stuff," she said. "But, oh, God, I do miss my children, my husband and the sweet rhythms of family life."

Never before has the United States fielded so many servicewomen performing such a variety of military jobs to a potential war zone.

Women repair the engines of fighter jets, pilot supply planes, command complex communication centers, track ships and planes on radar, serve in intelligence units, perform surgery in field hospitals, oversee logistics and do such ordinary grunt work as standing night guard, driving trucks and ladling out meals of hash and reconstituted eggs.

"Whatever happens, women are going to be in the thick of it," said Marine Lance Cpl. Melanie Robert, 20, an M-16 assault rifle slung over her shoulder as she patrolled the perimeter of a supply dump.

The presence of so many women in a relatively small theater of operations is making a mockery of the military rules, and U.S. law, that forbid females from serving in combat.

"You could say the theory of keeping women out of harm's way does not quite match the reality," said Army Sgt. Barbara Bates, 28, a military meteorologist from Nashville, Tenn.

Bates is the sole woman serving among more than 700 artillerymen with a forward-based mobile howitzer battalion of the 24th Infantry Division.

Only men can be assigned jobs defined as combat specialties, whether slogging with the infantry, commanding a battle tank or bucking the G-forces of a tactical fighter jet.

There is, however, a Catch-22: Women can be "attached" to combat units so long as their duties match their non-combat service specialty.

Hence, Capt. Lorelei W.Coplan, 27, commander of an Army aviation company, may find herself ferrying in supplies or evacuating wounded from hot landing zones in a "support capacity" even though her non-combat specialty is test pilot and helicopter maintenance expert.

"I don't have strong personal feelings as to whether women should or should not serve in combat," said Coplan. "I just love to fly helicopters and expect my unit will be operating in a hostile environment."

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