Women in Combat: the Soldiers Speak

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this past January issued a directive lifting the ban on women for direct combat ground roles. The controversy over its logic is still swirling, and this administration still has to figure out how to implement it. American Thinker interviewed military veterans to get their insight on this new order. Because some of those interviewed still had some connection with the military, they chose to speak anonymously.

Interestingly, the one point everyone could agree on involved including women in a future draft: "equal opportunity and equal rights go with equal obligations." A former female Army sergeant told American Thinker. "You cannot have your cake and eat it too. If women are serving then they should be drafted." Retired commander Darlene Iskra, the first woman commander of a commissioned naval vessel, argues that even if women did not qualify to be placed in direct combat roles there are "plenty of opportunities for drafted women to serve in positions. The military is 20% tooth, and 80% tail. If there is a situation where America's existence is at stake then the issue becomes the obligation of citizenship, not a man obligation."

Another point that many of those interviewed agreed on is that there are certain direct combat roles that should be opened to women because they are more attainable. A former Army captain notes that local cultural sensitivities in Iraq and Afghanistan have led the services to employ female personnel in missions led by combat units. A former Navy SEAL concurs since he has served with women interpreters who went out on missions with his unit. Veteran Marine Mike Liguori, author of The Sandbox: Stories of Human Spirit and War, served side by side in a motor transport unit with females. Their job was to resupply the front lines and he insists that females did their jobs just as well as the men. He sees no reason why women cannot have these same positions in a combat environment.

Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally, the first woman to fly in combat, told American Thinker that opening up roles "Is lining up with the reality what is really happening. Women have come back wounded and have paid the ultimate sacrifice. In the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars we saw that women were not allowed to be assigned to any direct combat units, but there was not a restriction for them being attached to ground combat units. Medics and dog handlers, for example, have been attached to infantry units. Take, for example, Monica Brown, a woman medic who served with a cavalry unit in a remote Pakistan province and was awarded the Silver Star in 2007 for risking her life to shield and treat her wounded comrades. She was placed in that position because there was no other medic and went out on combat patrols days at a time. A few days after receiving the award she was pulled out because of the restrictions of women in direct combat roles. This shows how very confusing, inefficient, and not effective the past policy has been. The right people should be put in the right job and certain specialties like medics should be open to women completely."

There is also widespread agreement that certain roles, such as Special Forces units, have an extraordinary impact on a person mentally and physically. Another former SEAL says realistically there is no way a woman can do the job, and it would be insane to "put a woman in the mix. When the guys are pissed at each other or want to blow off steam we fist fight. There is also the reality of living in close quarters and, for example, huddling closely to stay warm when on a mission. Besides, look at the attrition rate, about 90%, which means most men have failed."

The supporters of the directive argue that all roles should be open to women and allow them to try, even if only one in a thousand can succeed. However, McSally and Iskra are in agreement with those who do not support Panetta's directive, that standards should not be lowered. They want standards based on an individual's capability and qualifications, as well as performance.

This is where the disparity arises. Bing West, an author and former assistant secretary of defense, believes, "If the services do not change their standards then this announcement is a cynical, political ploy. They did it knowing nothing will change. Approximately 15% of our military are women. Maybe some Olympic type women will pass, but you will never achieve the proportionality that is currently in the military."

Both a retired Army major and captain refer to a statement by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey: "If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?" They believe this statement signals that the standards will be lowered since the Obama Administration will not be satisfied with the low number of woman succeeding, especially in direct combat roles. Both thought that having lower standards is ridiculous since it will certainly affect mission success and American lives. The major commented, "The enemy does not lower their standards and the Army is not an equal opportunity employer. If you are too tall, too fat, or not smart enough you cannot get in."

Colonel McSally responded that standards were lowered in 2005-2006 to meet the Army's recruitment goals, which included the elimination of the high school qualification requirement and lower aptitude scores. She and Commander Iskra emphasize that the physical fitness requirements are completely different than job requirements, and standards should be based on the occupation and what it takes to do the job, a neutral standard requirement that is not based on gender.

A retired female Army sergeant says not so fast: it's "a fact of life is that 99% of the women will not be able to compete with the men. There are reasons there are no women in the NFL, MLB, and there are separate leagues in basketball. I don't see people demanding that women play in the NFL or even a less contact sport like baseball."

All those opposing the order think that the female physique has to be taken into consideration. They wonder how carrying a 100-pound load, a heavy machine gun, or a 23-pound radio will affect women physically when they must carry it for 18 hours per day while climbing up a hill. Furthermore, can a woman load a 60-pound round from a sitting position if she was to be part of a tank unit? Since women are biologically different than men they wonder how this wear and tear will affect a women's body and are hoping this will be studied before any final decisions are made regarding the standards.

Everyone interviewed agrees that very few women will be qualified for direct combat and Special Forces units. Because of that, the Army female sergeant wonders how a woman will feel being the sole female living in the dirt for days on end with men only. She is sure these women will have "the additional hurdle of always trying to prove themselves. I experienced that as a female in the army. Besides that you always have to fight the battle of being hit on. Any female will have to be strong and firm emotionally. I am not talking about the men turning into rapists, but there will definitely be romantic situations that will come up."

The sergeant also says that from her own experiences men act as protectors, which could interfere with the mission success. "They are type A personalities and the majority of these guys are from the South where they have been raised with the attitude of taking care of the women. They have that sense of duty and honor. What happens if a woman is captured; will the enemy rape her to get information out of her fellow soldiers? What about a woman who becomes pregnant? They will have to be taken out of the war zone so a unit will have one less body."

Her Army male counterparts concur, but also say the recent Air Force sexual misconduct charges shows that there will be sexual harassment and abuse where men will prey on the women. Colonel McSally and Commander Iskra regard these as age-old arguments. Their rebuttal is the need to have a strong platoon leader who has the team focused on the mission; good order and discipline must be enforced. They agree with General Dempsey that by having these restrictions placed on women, men do not consider them as first class warriors, which adds to the potential for sexual harassment and abuse. They further argue that if there is a culture of protectiveness why is sexual harassment and abuse rampant in the military?

Colonel McSally also feels there has always been and will continue to be, "The culture in the military, which is to protect your buddy by putting yourself in harm's way. I had to fly an aircraft into enemy territory with a risk of being shot down and potentially captured. This is not a reason to restrict women, the fact that our enemy will commit war crimes."

All those interviewed agree that the important question is: how will this directive be implemented without lowering standards? Colonel McSally and Commander Iskra are hoping the implementation is focused on the individual, knowing that not very many women will be qualified, but wanting them to have the chance. The retired SEALs, Marines, and Army personnel believe that it is realistic to open certain direct combat positions to women, but to close infantry and Special Forces. What all hope is that those making the implementation decisions will be the ones who have fought on the lines themselves and whose number one priority is to secure the best possible fighting force.

The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

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