Viewpoint: The Department of Defense Took Too Long on Women in Combat

The ten year delay between on-the-ground reality and official policy shows a troubling bureaucracy

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Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images

From left: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey announce lifting the ban on women serving in front line combat roles on Jan. 24, 2013.

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the military would be lifting the policy preventing women from filling billets in units tasked with direct combat. As an Afghanistan veteran, I found myself particularly apathetic to the news—those of us who have served know this is an anti-climactic adjustment that comes so late that it shows a tremendous lag in upper-level decision making. The military used to be at the forefront of progress—the U.S. Armed forces were racially integrated five years before the landmark court decision Brown v Board of Education—but in the last two decades, I wonder if policy is influencing front lines or simply following suit decades later?

(MORE: Banning Women From Combat is Unconstitutional)

A veteran will attest to the 99.5 percent of Americans who have not deployed to combat that bullets and bombs don’t check our bio-data before they pierce our vehicles. Our insurgent enemy never agreed to let the medical helicopters and finance units have clear passage, and only fight the combat arms units on the ground. Rather, our enemy is ingenious and resourceful. Knowing well that going head-to-head with the American infantry is a losing game for pretty much anyone, our enemy instead goes for the jugular of our support system: logistics, food, fuel, supplies, medical attention, and even our care packages. The units charges with these functions are designed to sustain a defensive posture, but in today’s environment, they are forced to operate offensively and in direct combat as a means of survival. These are also units led by and filled with women warriors.

The decision to lift the ban was absolutely the right thing to do, but what concerns me, as a veteran with many loved ones still in the force, is how long it took us to get there. It bothers me that we had to wait more than a decade—beginning from a time when we had women leading units into the invasion of Iraq—to acknowledge the gender-agnostic battlefield with official policy. It bothers me that, only after ten years of war, did we decide that I was mature enough to serve in combat with a homosexual soldier watching my six o’clock. Why did it take us ten years of war for us to realize just how many veterans we were going to have to reintegrate into the workforce, to the point where Wal-Mart—not the U.S. government—is the only institution capable of absorbing us?

(PHOTOS: Been There, Done That: Pentagon Formally Opens Combat to Women)

The institutional problem here is that those charged with shaping military social welfare are rendering themselves moot by affirming or removing policies decades after the operational force has already taken the initiative to do so. We need our government to lead these cultural shifts, not simply follow with paperwork behind the decisions we make on the ground. Especially because those of us in the fight move quickly, it’s in the best interests of our higher authorities to match their decision-making with the nature of the modern military force.

(MORE: Is Washington Overreacting to Zero Dark Thirty?)

Perhaps I’m naïve. Perhaps this is actually the quickest possible pace that our policies can move. But from my perspective, when my soldiers went on patrol, they didn’t get the luxury of bureaucratic insulation; having multiple layers of protection to absorb risk so that the engine continues to idle without abrupt change. But when the lives of those on the line are directly controlled by a bureaucracy, I expect it to move swiftly and aggressively to accommodate the dynamics of the modern battlefield. Ten years of policy memos and focus groups is too slow, especially when the consequences of the decisions of civilian leaders will shape our force for the next decade of security.

So for my sisters in arms who have been fantastic representatives of our nation’s military, I salute you and thank you for your service. For my countrymen who are slowly adapting to the nature of what it means to be an American service member, I welcome you to the fight. Try and keep up.

38 comments
NicoToth
NicoToth

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SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA
SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA

This is all theoretical pony show...Nothing about this move states how it will IMPROVE our current system...

peter204
peter204

In a modern world where women are achieving equality in so many areas, it only seems natural that women are gaining a more critical role in combat.  I am a student studying political deliberation, and I would greatly appreciate productive feedback and discussion on this topic.  I believe that women are capable of serving in direct combat, although I acknowledge the obvious physical disparities between men and women.  However, I think that women can overcome these disparities in other areas and provide detrimental service on the front lines.  For example, in some countries women in the native country may not be comfortable talking to male soldiers, while women soldiers would be able to achieve a greater level of comfort and gain valuable data.  It is obvious that women face great consequences in the occurrence of capture, but women would sign up understanding these dangers.  Please respond with ideas on whether the U.S. is moving in the right direction with its new policy, thanks!

awes0me
awes0me

I'm an OEF and OIF vet with multiple tours to both locations as an Infantryman and I couldn't disagree with you more. 

atpcliff
atpcliff

Currently, more than 26 countries allow women in direct combat, including Canada, New Zealand, Britain, Australia, Norway and Germany.

In addition, Israel, Turkey, Norway, Russia, Poland, India, China, Afghanistan, Korea and Britain have females in Special Ops. The U.S. just opened up Task Force 160, an aviation special ops force, to women.

SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA
SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA

@atpcliff Who cares! That says what exactly? Yes and they all have "lowered" their standards for women in the process...I am all for equal opportunity if you can do the job but when we are systematically removing or lowering standards it smacks of political correct garbage, nothing more. Just because I want to practice Law for instance doesn't mean I am disenfranchised if I can't pass the Bar Exam! 

UnclePhil
UnclePhil

I worry about women being taken prisoner and abused, as seems bound to happen.  One YouTube video of same will be all it takes to further fan the flames of war.  Please stay behind the lines, ladies.  If you do, perhaps we won't have as many lines as we would otherwise. 

JessieReynolds
JessieReynolds

What are you implying?  That male soldiers are never taken prisoner and abused?  It's one of the risks of being a soldier -  gender makes no difference.

rmwgrace
rmwgrace like.author.displayName 1 Like

Now its time that women achieve true equality - and be required to register for Selective Service.  

atpcliff
atpcliff like.author.displayName 1 Like

@rmwgrace 

Yes, they will have to register, and be eligible for the draft. But, there will never be another draft, because the current draft rules do not allow exclusions for the wealthy or the politically connected. Because of this, for the first time in U.S. history, children and grandchildren of Congressmen and Congresswomen are now subject to the draft. Congress does not want their progeny in the military, so they will keep the military voluntary so that they can keep using the lower class kids to fight their battles for them.

Kenvilkid
Kenvilkid

I hope that this means that now all women on their 18th birthday will now be required to register with Selective Service. I wonder if all the women who vote for Obama because he told them that the Republicans had a so called "war on women" like it better that they can now actually go to a real war with a real ememy. Obama will now not only give them free birth control but also free bullets for their M16.

JessieReynolds
JessieReynolds like.author.displayName 1 Like

I registered for Selective Service on the eighteenth anniversary of my birth, in person, and even as an obvious female, I was allowed to do so.  This was in 1979!  Guess it just took some time for them to catch up with their paperwork.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

Equality is not some rubber stamp that can be thoughtlessly affixed to an idea to immediately make it of any value. In the case of putting females on the front lines of combat, the value is not only nil, but a dire and dangerous negative.

This is not to say that women are somehow lesser human beings than men, but war is not anything but the single worse scourge of the human condition... with its roots firmly founded in the male-engineered concept that killing is noble, destruction is prerequisite to honor and suffering is a means to respect. I dare submit that a true equality, in this instance, would be to ban males from conflict rather than expose our sisters to such a horrible invention. 

Unfortunately, our world has purposely set aside its moral compass at every opportunity of late and in so doing, pretended that such is a good thing... when, in fact, it is anything but. 

From here, I would hope to see a dramatic reduction in the number of female enlistments and then, laws generated by states that prohibit women from being forced to serve in any future military draft. 

JessieReynolds
JessieReynolds

Why would the value of a good soldier be changed by their gender?  I am an excellent shot and a loyal patriot - how would my gender affect my ability to fight in the front lines of combat?  In case you believe women are not capable of killing the enemy, I suggest you do a bit of research into historical events involving war and women.

SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA
SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA

@JessieReynolds As should you madam and then you can tell me how allowing women into combat now would make any difference in our ability to wage it? Historically, the status quo has worked quite well. I am all for change when times call for it but not simply for the sake of..

mjhenson9
mjhenson9 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Rajiv, it has probably already been said here, I am not taking time to read all the comments. I am an Iraq veteran and retired Army officer, led soldiers in combat, have the medals and the badges, "been there, done that".

Are women just as fine of warriors as men? Without question.

Should the armed forces be fully integrated in all roles without regard to gender or anything for that matter? Absolutely.

Would I have stood next to a woman in combat and killed the enemy with her watching my back? Definitely.

But...

Will women in combat branches be sexually assaulted, harrassed, discriminated against, bullied, and not taken seriously as leaders in combat by SOME members of our armed forces? 100% positively, ALL of those things WILL happen.

Integration has to be done with care and very fine attention. We learned in the heat of OIF and OEF just how capable our women warriors were, but that was not the time to wave your magic wand and call the military integrated.

I hope that now is that time and now that we have all seen just how meaningless the lines of the combat roles are and how much of a positive impact women can have leading troops in battle that the stage is set for a smooth and successful, however late, integration.

There is no reason to spin this positive change in such a negative light. Shoulda, woulda, coulda... whatever. It is happening now, so lets focus on getting it done right.

DouNome
DouNome

It is too soon to say it was too long. It was not too long if it turns out to be a bad idea.


PatriciaBacon
PatriciaBacon

In my opinion, this is a dangerous situation. Women can and will be used in combat if they are ever captured to persuade their male counterparts. This is why women were never allowed in those roles, not to mention the fact that most women are not physically up to par for this. It doesn't matter if they're a size 2 with 0 body fat, if you can't carry an injured 200lb+ man out of harm's way, or hump for weeks at a time with gear weighing more than you do then you're not cut out for the job. We haven't even touched on the mental hardships that are faced out on the front lines and women are emotional no matter how much training they've had it's their nature. I have a feeling this is going to cause more problems that it will eliminate and put troops in more dangerous situations. It's a bad move.

sroxannef
sroxannef

@PatriciaBacon I hate reading such ridiculously outdated, uninformed, and plan OFFENSIVE comments coming from what appears to be a fellow woman (given your name is Patricia, although your comments would be no more excusable if a man had said them). Firstly, you ARE correct about one thing-- a size 2 woman with 0% body fat WOULD NOT be a good candidate for combat, considering a woman with those proportions would be dead, or near death.  LOW body fat for a woman is between 15% and 20%. I can carry a 200 pound man out of harms way, as a 5'8", 32% body fat, 175 pound woman. WITHOUT. A. DOUBT. 

Secondly, woman already carry the required gear for weeks and then some, HELLO, they still go through the same training that their male counterparts do. 

I'm sure you've already been torn up and down by other offended women, and I'm sure these points have already been made a few times over, but I couldn't resist. If you're not worth contributing to women's rights, then don't talk for the rest of us-- because you suggesting that women AS A WHOLE are incapable of emotionally processing war and violence, then that only speaks ill of you and your control of your emotions, not women in entirety. 

PatriciaBacon
PatriciaBacon

@sroxannef @PatriciaBacon Well, first of all let me say that I'm a military wife. I've known many female enlisted through the years. I'm guessing that your response is based off of what large amount of experience you have with the military.. allow me to LOL here... 

First, tell me what specificially in my reply is outdated. The way that you took my example of size 2, 0 bodyfat example speaks volumes about your line of thinking. So you're telling me, that if you're on patrol in the middle of the desert with nothing more than a tree or rock to hide behind that you would physically be able to carry a 200lb man, in SAND, both of you wearing full gear, so add 100 pounds give or take to your body weights, while being shot at with AK47's and RPGs? I seriously doubt it, and if you think you're man enough, please by all means sign up and ship out in three months. 

Secondly, you're terribly uninformed, women aren't out in the field for weeks, most are limited to 72 hours. How wrong you are about the same training. Women are held to different physical requirements than men in basic training and during routine yearly PT tests. Go look it up, the information is out there. Now why do you think that is? There are those that can keep up with the men no problem, but you're talking about very very few.

Unfortunately, you think that the opinions of the undeducated and misinformed matter to me, they don't.  You can disagree all you like, but with your little rant up there have 100% proved my point about being too emotional. You're a prime example. Women aren't incapable of processing war or violence, but the FACT is and always will be that MOST females cannot handle the wears of war for a few days, let alone weeks, months or even a year or more. There are maybe .002% of currently enlisted women that would actually be able to deal with the types of situations that front line fighters encounter once or twice, but not as a career. If you're arguing that women should have the chance to go out there, be captured, tortured, raped, end up with PTSD, mamed, disabled for life, or even never return home to their children, then good for you. I however see the reality in it, that they will be more of a liability than anything. 

It's great to be empowered and want to advance in a man's world, and anyone thinks that getting themselves killed is worth it, then go for it. I've seen families lose loved ones, I've see the coffins come off the planes draped in the flag. That is why I believe it to be a better idea to get the hell out of those countries and take care of ourselves than sending more over there. 

atpcliff
atpcliff like.author.displayName 1 Like

@PatriciaBacon 

Yeah, but what if they are 6'5", weigh 245 pounds and have 12% body fat? Do you think a 125 pound man can carry a 200+ pound guy? No way! That is why there are minimum standards. If the woman wants to fight, and she meets the standard, she is in.

PatriciaBacon
PatriciaBacon

@atpcliff @PatriciaBacon Sooo, you're saying that the different physical fitness requirements they have now are just for fun? Regardless of a man's height or weight, they still have to meet the same requirements as the others in their age groups during routine PT tests. If women are equals, then why the differences?

KatherineSchoolcraft
KatherineSchoolcraft like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@PatriciaBacon I am completely appalled by your judgements. As a female who has served in our armed forces as a female medic, carried 200lb+ MEN in their full kit, while wearing my armor, in addition to a fully stocked aid bag weighing in around 40lbs, your statements are naive and ignorant. I can name just as many weak men in our Army, that I can women. Additionally, in repairable to your mental comment, do you know how many more men I have processed for PTSD versus the women? The bold statement you made that women are more emotional is strictly an opinion. At all costs, I feel I witnessed more women coming home from deployment, able to justify and logically infer what they witnessed and why. As the article stated, women have been in these roles for years. Females being attached to all male infantry units as medics isn't a new decision that has been implemented. And it's women like you, who make the broad statements as you have that hold women like myself and my counterparts back when it comes to opening the eyes of our narrow minded culture.

KatherineSchoolcraft
KatherineSchoolcraft

In response***

JustCurious
JustCurious like.author.displayName 1 Like

@KatherineSchoolcraftJust curious, but as a female medic, do you have to do the same number of pushups, situps, and run that your male counterpart does to get the same number of points on a PT assessment?  If not, can you answer why not?


d2sdonger
d2sdonger like.author.displayName 1 Like

If a woman is treated just like a man and has to meet the same physical standards then more power to them. I know some tough women. My problem would be that if I was in a "foxhole" or similar situation I would have problems say.........taking a crap in front of a woman. Im sure feeling is mutual.

sroxannef
sroxannef

@d2sdonger  It's ridiculous to base whether a woman should be granted the same rights for progression in the military or not on feces. If the military can condition soldiers to kill other men/women, I think they'll be able to condition them to poop in front of each other.

SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA
SpartaofPhoenixAZUSA

@sroxannef @d2sdonger No "darling" its not...You have to take into account the entire "day to day" experience of being in a combat role. Have you ever tried doing so? I never found it that easy to do in front of other men..You and many of your ilk are dangerously naive.....

mantic.mantix
mantic.mantix like.author.displayName 1 Like

The service currently doesn't treat men and women the same. The only way this will work is if it is treated with equality.. And that just wont happen.
Currenty the fitness standards are different. Women's fitness test is way easier. And women generally get treated better than the men. Also there is the hygene issue. Women spend 3 day in the field while men stay out indefinately.
Women wanted it so now they get it. Enjoy.

sroxannef
sroxannef

@mantic.mantix  I have no military experience, but if what you're saying is correct, and woman are limited to 3 days max in the field, that needs to change as well. Equality, equality, equality. You're right, we wanted it, so we need to get it. 

d2sdonger
d2sdonger

Why do they keep putting opinion pieces as top stories on google news.

atpcliff
atpcliff

@d2sdonger 

The same reason that Fox News has opinion pieces, and CNN has opinion pieces, and the BBC has opinion pieces, etc., etc.