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!!)
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.