Women in Combat: Part I

So I know yesterday was supposed to be my Swan Song of sorts, but I am hearing so much nonsense on the topic of women in combat lately, I just can’t keep my mouth shut.  So I’m going to write a series of posts that address some of the main points of this discussion, as well as some points that I wish were being talked about and just aren’t:

I. Surprise!  We’re already there! Serving in Combat vs. a Combat MOS

II. Politics vs. Necessity: why we’re there

III. Boys and Girls are Different

IV. The physical issues

V. The hygiene issues

VI. Unit cohesion and the psychological issues

Out on Patrol with Artillery (the Iraqis usually assumed I was a man!!)

Out on Patrol with Artillery (the Iraqis usually assumed I was a man!!)

I. Surprise!  We’re already there! Serving in Combat vs. a Combat MOS

This week one of the top stories in the news has been that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has lifted the ban against women serving in combat. There appears to be a great deal of confusion, however, over what that means exactly. I am growing a little impatient with the perception that this is some revolutionary, experimental idea that has come way out of left field, or the lack of awareness, which is now so painfully obvious, regarding what service women have actually been doing for the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The number one misconception I am observing coming out of the public dialogue is that that up until now, women have not been serving in combat.  This is my number one pet peeve when the subject of “allowing women to serve in combat” comes up because it is clear that civilians don’t realize there is a difference between serving in combat and holding a combat MOS, and the military is doing a terrible job of explaining the difference. So before anyone espouses their opinion about what a great idea or what a terrible idea this is, before you go any further in your thought process, please make sure you understand this point clearly:

The Pentagon has had a policy in place that has officially banned women from serving in combat on the ground since 1994.  Notice that I said officially and not effectively. This ban places rules and restrictions on what roles women can serve in terms of their Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) and what size units they can be assigned to. But there is a pretty major work around these rules, and that is to say that while women are not officially allowed to be assigned below the brigade level to fight on the ground, nothing says they can’t be attached.  And believe me, they have been attached.

Women are already allowed to fill all kinds of roles that put them directly in the line of fire right next to their male counterparts. There are women Military Police, who frequently conduct raids and go out on missions and are often tasked out as Infantry when necessity demands it. There are women Medics and Truck Drivers who are in convoys that get blown up and attacked.  There are female Intelligence Collectors and Public Affairs Officers who are attached to Infantry units and go out on foot patrol and walk through cities and villages where they risk getting shot or blown up and have in fact been killed.

There are a handful of jobs that women are not allowed to fill, the most controversial ones being Infantry and Special Forces. Now here is where it is really important to make the distinction between being in combat and being allowed to have a combat MOS. It is also where we have to ask what, in reality, does Secretary Panetta’s decision actually change?

It is sometimes helpful to look at the Army in terms of Infantry and everybody else. The Infantry is kind of like the Army within the Army. They are the guys on the ground conducting missions, going on raids, ruck marching through mountains, etc., etc. Everybody else is technically considered support.  That is to say, everybody else’s job is essentially to make sure these guys have everything they need to do their job.  And here is where I tell you most soldiers—the men included—are NOT infantry.

Everybody from the Supply guys to the Medics have an important job to do, and many of them are directly in the line of fire, but they are NOT Infantry. That does not mean they don’t serve in combat. On top of that, when you have an all volunteer army that is a little short on manpower, you increasingly have soldiers who are not Infantrymen being tasked out to fill the role of Infantry.  My husband and I were both attached to an Artillery unit that got pulled out of their tanks and off the firing line and told they were going to go live out on a patrol base and conduct foot patrols every day instead.  So it is important to understand when we are talking about women serving in combat, just because they aren’t allowed a combat MOS, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a job that puts them there.

As far as I understand it, the military branches, even after the ban on women in combat is lifted, are being allowed to file for exceptions, and I suspect the Infantry MOS will be first in line. While lifting the ban may open the door to allow women to serve in these roles, until all of those exceptions have been filed and reviewed, whether or not women will fill those roles is still yet to be seen.

So if the net effect of the Secretary’s decision may not, actually, change the reality of what has already been taking place, what is all the hubbub about? Well for starters, because women have not been officially allowed to serve in combat, they have not been recognized for their service in combat either. This is a formality that has some very real consequences. For many years, women were denied disability for PTSD because, as the argument went, if women are not allowed to serve in combat, how could they possibly have combat-induced stress? Even after the Department of Veterans Affairs reversed their policy regarding female veterans suffering from PTSD, it is my understanding that they did so while issuing the statement that you do not have to serve in combat to have deployment-related PTSD, still failing to recognize that many women have returned home from these wars suffering the ill effects of combat induced stress.

So to wrap this point up, what we have here are two very different debates.  One is the question, should women be allowed to serve in combat, meaning should they be allowed to be integrated into units that will come directly under fire, subjecting them to attacks, putting them in the position where they may have to kill or be killed, putting them alongside men who may have to watch them be horribly maimed or wounded?  And if you are going to engage in that debate, I ask only that you recognize that the Secretary’s decision has virtually no affect on this scenario because many women have already been serving in that very capacity for the last ten years.

The other debate, which is really a very different discussion altogether, is whether or not women should be allowed to fill some of these roles that have been closed off to them, mainly Infantry, Artillery, Combat Engineer, etc.,?  I think that is an important discussion to have, and there are no quick and fast answers to that question. Again though, I ask only for you to recognize that the secretary’s decision may not, after all, have much affect on the status quo here due to the exceptions that have yet to be filed. I also ask that you take into consideration that while, up until now, these so-called combat MOS’s have been closed to women, numerous other MOS’s that put women directly in the line of fire have not, including Military Police, Medics, helicopter pilots, supply route truck drivers, etc., etc., etc.

As far as what this decision will actually, in reality, change, my basic feeling so far is that this is a formality that recognizes the role women have already been filling in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 10 years. If the Infantry MOS does open up to women, that will be uncharted territory, but before everybody gets all up in a tizzy over it, let’s see if that’s even go to happen first. I think what’s more important is that the recent debate clearly shows that not only do civilians have absolutely no idea what women are doing on the battlefield, but apparently many of our service members don’t either!

I am absolutely astonished at the number of female Marines who I have heard come out against the decision, and it’s not that they are opposed to women serving in the most forward positions that shock me—I’m not sure I think integrating women into the Infantry is a good idea either—it’s that they seem to think putting women outside the wire is some kind of social experiment that has never been tried before. I cannot speak to what it is like to be a woman in the Marines.  I honestly didn’t see too many marines while I was in Iraq, so I have no idea what roles are open to female Marines.  I think some of the arguments they have voiced against putting women on the battlefield are legitimate. But I don’t understand why many of them are talking about it like it’s not already happening.

I am going to write several more posts addressing some of the arguments against putting women in combat MOS’s.  Like I said, I think some of them are perfectly valid.  But my one wish is that whatever your position may be on women in combat, please understand that we’re already there.

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16 thoughts on “Women in Combat: Part I

  1. Our leaders are confused. All Soldiers are warriors. When you deliver gas, food and water to tanks. You have opportunity to fight. Woman have been M.P since I was in 1977. Every Soldier is trained to fight and all Soldiers do guard duty and perform dangerous task in war. Many good woman and men had died for freedom. Woman have been serving the USA since the birth of this country. I agree with your thoughts.

      • INFANTRY! The Army within the Army! I love that! I will reluctantly tell you that you are right almost always now a days do we put other MOS’ in harms way. I would say that the days of Women in Combat is already here, has been here but I still don’t think they should be Infantry, and that is for there own safety. Infantryman are arrogant show offs who like to fight all the time. Women in combat will do fine without guys like us, just ask my fiancee, she can barely stand me.

      • Lol. I hear that! I will agree that the Infantry is the one place I think should probably remain men only, but that’s a tough one for me because I was attached to a patrol team. I was the only female on a PB, and I went out on foot patrol every day with artillery. When I first got assigned to the unit, I heard the GI Jane comments muddled under some of the guy’s breath, but by the time our tour was up, every one of those guys were my brothers. So when I hear people say women would never be accepted or they would get raped or they would just be a distraction, I know that’s not necessarily true either. But I can’t see putting a woman on the team during the initial push into an unsecured area either. That’s a totally different story. I can see big problems there.

  2. EOD isn’t closed to women

    As for the Marines. They take this infantry vs everyone else things to even more absurd extremes than other branches and treat everyone who isn’t in the infantry lower than dirt. Even if they are actually in combat units. Infantry marines have absolutely no clue on how to deal with women, so the women speaking out so forcefully against that may have internalized some of that.

    • Thank you. For some reason I always thought EOD was closed to women, but I should have fact-checked that. I am leaning towards your assessment as far as internalizing the whole infantry b.s. They all seem to be repeating the same message over and over again, and they all think this whole thing is about being PC. Coming from an Army background, that’s incredible to me. I’ll be the first one to say that there are legitimate arguments against putting women on the line, but the reality is that Army commanders haven’t been sending women out to the line to be PC or to make a point. When they go, it’s because they’ve been trained to do a job and they are being sent to do that job. If there’s an equally qualified male available to send, he’ll be the one to go, but usually when a woman is out on the line, it’s because the mission dictates it, not politics.

  3. FINALLY, someone with boots on the ground experience to tell these civilians the truth about us in the military. I did my PT test to the male standard almost every time except when I got pregnant (I was NOT deployed at the time either). I think that if a woman can do it and keep up – knock yourself out. I could care less but what is so infuriating is all these neaderathals saying such stupid crap because they served in Vietnam or Korea or they never served at all. This is exactly what I have been saying… And furthermore, the IDF has been using women for a LONG time.

    • Thank you Kelly. My reaction to all the noise has slowly grown from indifferent to puzzled to absolutely infuriated. I have to admit, I’ve grown increasingly impatient with our sisters in arms who keep writing commentaries about how we don’t go outside the wire because we can’t pee standing up and really half of us get pregnant anyway so this all just a bad idea. I’m not saying we belong in the infantry, but there are plenty of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who were sent out on mission to kick down doors in search of high value targets, so I’m getting really sick of everybody talking like we’re not out there already.

    • And I hear you about the Vietnam and Korea guys! I feel like I’ve been beaten over the head with this whole COIN vs. conventional warfare b.s.! You can’t get passed the infantry argument with them! I’ve tried so many ways to explain that the ban doesn’t just apply to the infantry, but they don’t want to hear it!

  4. Yes women have been seeing combat for quite some time due to being attached. However, placing them in combat mos increases the frequency with which they will engage in combat. I think three more that happens the more we will see problems occur. I believe most women are not as capable in certain combat scenarios, such as carrying a wounded man. Are there exceptions? Of course. But the more women see combat, the more likely it is that the women that aren’t as Capable will end up in those types of scenarios. I mean, it it’s just a fact that most women cannot meet the same pt standards as men, which says a lot about their general physical capabilities. Then there it’s the issue of men having problems seeing females get wounded etc. again, many women are already seeing combat and do just fine. However, these new rules will increase the number of women that engage in combat and I really believe that increase will start to show the problems three average woman has in certain combat situations. All that aside however, my biggest problem with this is it brings us one step closer.to women in actual infranty, spec ops etc. which is a big problem to me, as it will really exacerbate the problems described above. All that being said, I do agree that women should receive appropriate recognition for the combat roles they already play, and more importantly, receive proper resources to deal with combat induced problems such as ptsd. Not doing so is extremely wrong. Finally, please don’t take this as a knock against you women that can perform as well, or better than men. Just realize that you are a small minority, and unfortunately, the armed forces has to make rules based on general abilities.

    • Thank you for being able to express a different viewpoint without entirely missing my point! I agree that lifting the ban will most likely result in more women being pushed out to the line, although I’m not sure how many more. Because of the nature of OIF and OEF, the MP’s have played a significant role in combat operations, beyond what they have traditionally, and as such, many female MP’s have already been involved in direct combat operations. Having said that, I agree that the Infantry is the one place that should probably remain exclusively male, and as we know, lifting the ban may change that (it may not, but we don’t know yet). I’m on the fence about SF (we already play a pretty significant role in spec ops support).

      I think the best point you raise is the problem of how men respond to seeing women wounded. One of the men I served with who has seen both men and women killed in combat said that by far, seeing a woman killed is much more difficult to handle. I’m not saying this is a reason to keep women out of combat altogether, but it is certainly a significant issue to consider when asking whether or not women should be integrated into Infantry units.

      I agree there are physical issues, but I think the issue here is more one of endurance and sustainability and less whether or not a woman would be able to perform a specific task, like pulling a wounded soldier, in an individual scenario. The reason I say that is because 1. that’s the type of standard any soldier in a combat MOS, male or female, would have to meet before getting through training (even I had to be able to do the fireman’s carry, and I wasn’t in a combat MOS. The more likely a soldier is to be in that situation, the higher the bar is set in training, so you would know before you ever deployed with the person standing next to you whether he or she is capable of carrying you). and 2. There have already been numerous female soldiers who have pulled men twice their size to safety under fire (yes, I know that there are exceptions, but these aren’t big burly women either).

      Having said all that, I think the biological differences between men and women really come into play when you are talking about an MOS that requires soldiers to sustain a certain level of strength and endurance for an extended period of time, like the Infantry MOS. My own experience in the Army taught me that women just aren’t built the same as men, and that has much more to do with bone structure than muscle mass. A woman can be stronger than a man and even capable of outperforming men due to their strength, but simply put, the female bone structure will break before a man’s will. The higher rate of stress injury among women in the Army is a really big problem that is largely ignored. When you’re talking about having to carry heavy loads short distances (like only 10 or even 20 km), it’s not a problem, but when you are talking about having to sustain that level of strength and endurance over the length of an entire deployment, then it becomes a real issue.

      I don’t take your comment as a knock against me at all. I think it was expressed very respectfully, and I appreciate the honest opinion. (I should probably also point out that I am not one of those women who would make it through Infantry training, but thank you for the compliment!) It’s an incredibly complex issue, and I think the more we engage in the conversation the men and women who have served together in combat units or who have even come directly under fire together, the more useful the dialogue will be.

  5. Rock of the Marne. I am commenting simply because I say an article where you wrote and stated that you lived at PB Whiskey-1 on Hot air. Here is the link (http://hotair.com/archives/2013/02/03/another-female-veteran-speaks-on-women-in-combat/comment-page-1/) I lived there for several months and helped with the research and clearing of all the local villages. I as a former 11B trained the men from 1-9FA how to conduct the missions they did. I am not trying to start anything. I am just not remembering an female soldier ever living at out PB when 1-9FA fan it. I am SGT Ralph Gaskin a former member ot Top Flite from 26BSB. we were assigned to 1-9FA after our EOD mission with 4th BDE 25th ID ended. Can you please explain your situation to me so I understand. I am not trying to sharp shoot you on it. I’m not calling you a liar. I have PTSD and my memory does suck. However I have 100s of pictures and no females in them. I was the senior medic there and an acting infantry squad leader as my secondary MOS is 11B. Thank you and God bless.

    • Gaskin this is pretty funny. You know exactly who I am. We’re friends on Facebook and we ate together at the DFAC in Kalsu at the end of the deployment. You were out at the PB the first few months of the surge. My husband, another line medic, was your relief. I was sent from FOB Falcon right after air force EOD got blown up trying to clear the JDAM crater. My husband was the medic who treated them. I was assigned to Blue Team, the same team as my husband, your relief. I’m still trying to keep this somewhat anonymous, so I don’t want to put my name out there, but if you haven’t figured out who I am yet, think MMA. How’s the book selling? Kas bought a digital copy and said it’s good ;)

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