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Thursday, April 24

Nation lavishes lopsided attention on female POWs

By Louie Gilot | El Paso Times

Former prisoner of war Spc. Shoshana Johnson has been offered a scholarship to a prestigious culinary school, her own bakery, and is being courted by Oprah Winfrey and NBC's Stone Phillips. The other rescued woman, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was on the cover of People and Newsweek and had to ask well-wishers to stop sending gifts to her crowded hospital room.

And what about the men POWs from Fort Bliss? Sgt. James J. Riley, Spc. Joseph Hudson, Spc. Edgar Adan Hernandez and Pfc. Patrick Miller were captured as well, in the same ambush of Fort Bliss' 507th Maintenance Company by Iraqi forces near Nasiriyah March 23. They too were held captive for three weeks before being rescued April 13 by Marines.

But these men have not received nearly as much attention as their female counterparts.

``We haven't gotten any offers,'' said Natalie Hudson, Hudson's wife.

Media experts and sociologists said women POW stories are more exciting because they are rare. There were no American female POWs between World War II and Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

``You never hear about this happening to women. It's all sort of new to us as a nation,'' said Tennessee gospel singer Eric Horner, who will sing his song ``She is a Hero'' at Lynch's homecoming party.

Melissa Coleman, a former Gulf war POW who was deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas, said this is nothing new.

``The gentleman I was captured with (David Lockett), he wasn't offered anything. He wasn't even acknowledged,'' Coleman said.

But the offers she got - Sally Jesse Raphael wanted her to get married on her talk show; the president of Italy sent flowers and named a perfume after her; she was asked to help write a book about her 33 days in a Baghdad prison in 1991 - pale in comparison to what Johnson and Lynch are being offered now, Coleman said.

``Even though it's 2003, people are still in awe of women in the military,'' she said.

Edwin Dorn, a former under secretary of defense for President Clinton, said he was happily surprised by the outpouring of affection for the women.``Apparently, the public is more supportive (of women in combat) than we had expected in the early 1990s,'' he said. ``There could have been another reaction: that (the women) shouldn't have been where they were.''

Some experts think the public may actually be more sympathetic to women who are in dangerous situations. ``Our chivalrous intentions kick in,'' said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Graham also said media outlets use female-friendly stories to attract female readers, a lucrative demographic for their advertisers. Two dominant stories in the past several weeks were the first war death of a female Native American soldier, Arizona's Pfc. Lori Piestewa, and the homicide of Califonia's Lacy Peterson, an expectant mother.

The coverage struck a cord in Patricia Moritz, an Army veteran who invited the former POWs to the Veterans Day Parade she organizes in Albany, Ore.

``For me it's more of an intrigue with Spc. Johnson because she is closer to my age and she is a mother. I don't really know the history of the others,'' she said.

Despite Hudson's winning smile, Miller's two small children, Hernandez's dream of studying criminology, and Riley's endearing shyness, the men have not been pursued, other than as a group.

They do have their own engagements at hometown parades and the occasional balloon festival, but, ``I don't know of any scholarships,'' said the Rev. Ron Pracht of the Olivet Southern Baptist Church in Wichita, Kan., who speaks daily with the Miller family. ``I don't know of anything major like that. We got a lot of prayers in the mail, though.''

Offers from schools, gifts and letters from individuals and requests for media interviews are transmitted to the families of the former POWs by the public affairs office at Fort Bliss. Some resourceful individuals have also approached the families directly and through their churches.

Representatives for the Hudsons, Rileys and Millers said they don't mind being left alone.

Jessa Miller, Miller's wife, ``told me, `Ron, it's a circus out here,''' Pracht said. ``To her, it's the least important thing.''

Whether the lopsided attention is going to have long-lasting effects is a concern to Martha Kleder, policy analyst for the conservative group, Concerned Women for America, in Washington, D.C.

``What is it going to do in the future for military cohesion if the men know they won't be treated the same way when they come back?'' she asked.