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Saturday, April 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:16 a.m.

Teen soldier had "backbone of steel"

Seattle Times staff reporter


Outside a Fort Lewis chapel yesterday, Robert Huff, father of Pfc. Sam Huff, hugs Sgt. Courtney Leonard after the memorial service. Spc. Justin Saunders, right, also was a friend of Sam Huff's, and he and Leonard served with Huff in Iraq. Huff will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

Eighteen-year-old Pfc. Sam Huff was born with a man's name.

But she was a consummate "girlie-girl," said her father, Robert Huff.

She liked to wear false eyelashes and played flute in her high-school band. Last July, she joined the Army, the first step in a career she hoped would take her to the FBI.

On April 18, Huff, an only child, became the 37th U.S. female to die in combat since 2003.

Yesterday, her parents and comrades gathered in a Fort Lewis chapel to recall Huff's independent spirit and her unfulfilled ambitions.

But what they remembered most was that she loved soldiering, and she was good at it. The memorial became, in part, a testimonial to the growing role women are playing in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Born in Tucson, Ariz., on July 12, 1986, Huff was 16 when she announced her intention to enlist in the Army, go to college to study psychology and become an FBI agent.

Pfc. Sam Huff decided at age 16 she would enlist in the Army. On Monday she was killed when a roadside bomb detonated next to her Humvee in Baghdad.

"We just stood there, dumbfounded," said Robert Huff, a retired Tucson police detective. His wife, Margaret Williams, served as an air traffic controller in the Marines.

But there wasn't any family talk of women not belonging in the military, he said: "Not in our house, are you kidding?"

Huff was assigned to the Fort Lewis-based 170th Military Police Company, which helps train Iraqi police.

"Beneath that beautiful young lady was a backbone of steel," Sgt. Sam Jones wrote in a letter read aloud during her funeral.

Huff was killed when a roadside bomb detonated next to her armored Humvee in Baghdad.

Role clarified

In 1994, after the Gulf War, the Pentagon adopted a policy to clarify women's role in the military. While women could serve on just about any ship or aircraft, they were excluded from Army units whose primary mission is to engage the enemy in direct combat.


Pfc. Sam Huff's father, Robert Huff, second from left, her mother, Margaret Williams, and her fiancé, Nicholas Neally, before yesterday's memorial service in a Fort Lewis chapel.

Elaine Donnelly, who studied the issue when serving on the Presidential Commission on Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces in the early 1990s, said there were compelling reasons to restrict the deployment of female soldiers.

Women generally are unable to carry heavy loads, and their presence can spark interpersonal tensions within the ranks, she said. Also, she added, pregnancy can present unforeseen challenges, and females run a greater risk of sexual torture if captured.

Donnelly said the 1994 policy was intended to exclude women from pitched battles between opposing forces. However, military-police units such as the one Huff was assigned to are increasingly taking on missions that put them in harm's way, she said.

"The nation has gotten used to the idea of women dying in combat," Donnelly said. "I don't think that's a good thing. It's a setback for women."

But Huff's superiors said females have shown their value in Iraq.

About 350,000 women are serving in the U.S. military, about 15 percent of active-duty personnel. One out of seven soldiers in Iraq is female. More than 260 have been wounded.

"There's no frontline (in Iraq). Whether we want to say women are going to be in certain military engagements or not, they are needed," Lt. Col. Thomas Tatum said. "Culturally, for many people, it's something they got to get used to. And I see no evidence they are not pulling their weight."

Or, as Spc. Justin Saunders, a friend of Huff's, put it: "Women have a place in the Army. Male or female, it would have happened the same way. They bleed as we do."

When he heard of his daughter's death, Robert Huff thought for a moment that he should have done more to dissuade her from military service.

But then he realized she died doing something she loved, on her own terms.

"You start to feel sorry for yourself," but you think about other parents grieving the death of their children, he said.

"There's nothing but tragedy in losing a soldier."

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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