By Daniel Slone For USMilitary.com
Opening the Last Frontier for Women in the Military
I always thought the end of the ban on women in combat would be a far more dramatic affair than it turned out to be. Plenty of Sturm und Drang accompanied the repeal of Don?t Ask, Don?t Tell, after all, so it only stood to reason. That?s why I was a bit shocked when with relatively little fanfare SECDEF Panetta announced the end of the policy last week.
So yes, I?m going to be stunningly original and add to the spreading pool of ink already spilled on the topic of women in combat. It is, after all, the elephant in the room, so I might as well throw a handful of peanuts its way.
In truth, all I want to do here is lay out a couple of things I would ask our leaders to remember as they undertake the task of writing the policies that will actually govern this matter. It is one thing to wave the magic wand of Cabinet-level policy declarations and quite another to assemble a workable set of rules, so it?s a good thing the services have until 2016. I?m a soldier, so I?m going to write from that perspective while assuring you up front that yes, I realize this change affects all branches of the military. But I?ve only served in the Army, so I?m going to stay in my lane.
I do feel qualified to address the topic because I?ve been an infantry soldier for about 14 years now, and at the moment I?m the first sergeant of a light reconnaissance infantry unit. I?ve served in both mechanized and light infantry units, I pulled two tours in Iraq, and I?ve trained in my craft in places ranging from Fort Hood, Texas and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California to Belize and Thailand. In short, I may be a National Guard soldier, but I?ve gotten around.
Request #1: When it?s time to write the standards governing entry to combat arms occupations, be realistic. You owe it to your soldiers and you owe it to the Army.
One of my favorite military quotes comes from CSM Gary Littrell, one of the lucky relative few who earned the Medal of Honor and lived to tell about it: ?We as NCOs deprive a soldier of his basic right to live if we send that soldier into combat without proper training.? By extension, we commit the same crime if we send soldiers into a profession for which they lack the necessary fundamental abilities. That means the standards used to govern entrance into the infantry (or any of the other previously barred occupational specialties) have to be based on reality, not political correctness.
Notice I said ?standards governing entry,? not ?standards governing the admission of women.? If we?re going to establish standards, there should be no blithe assumption that every male can meet them (and therefore need not be tested) but that we?ve got to check on the females. I can tell you right now that there are plenty of males who wouldn?t be able to pass a properly-written standard that qualified females could, because I?ve known some of those males and some of those females.
But what we can?t do is place people of either gender on the battlefield who can?t pull their weight. Doing so puts them at risk, puts their comrades at risk, and puts the mission at risk. Right now the current standard requires me, as a 43-year-old male, to run two miles in 18:42 to achieve a passing score on the Army Physical Fitness Test and in 14:06 to achieve the maximum score. A 43-year-old female passes with 23:42 and maxes with 17:24. A female in the most demanding category?the 17- to 21-year-old age group?passes the two-mile run with 18:54?more time than I, who am old enough to be her father, has.
How appealing is the specter of anyone?female or male?being left behind by his or her comrades on the battlefield? I?m not saying females can?t run fast enough?there are plenty who are athletic enough to dust all but the fastest guys. My point is that right now, the Army says (rather patronizingly, if you ask me) that females aren?t expected to run nearly as fast as males. (There are similar disparities in the push-up event, though scoring for the sit-up event is identical.)
Request #2: Please remember that combat is not the same as the day-in, day-out grind of warfare.
In June 2005?while I was in Iraq the first time?SGT Leigh Ann Hester, an MP with the Kentucky National Guard, was awarded the Silver Star for her response in repelling an ambush on a convoy her unit was escorting. SGT Hester led her element through the kill zone and flanked the ambushers, entering and clearing a trench line where she killed three insurgents.
Clearly she did not lack courage, the willingness to pull the trigger and take life, or even (despite being an MP!) the skills to execute a bread-and-butter infantry task. Her performance, and that of thousands of other females serving in a variety of occupational specialties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, puts to rest any question of whether a woman can fight. In any event, I think that was a silly question to begin with.
I only ask that our leaders take care not to allow their thinking to be conditioned by the nature of the last decade of war. Living in air conditioned trailers, served a breathtaking array of food by a highly-paid government contractor and provided gyms, fully-stocked PXs, Internet access, and banks of telephones while third-country nationals take care of the mundane drudgery like doing laundry and cleaning latrines is not the nature of wars past and is unlikely to be the nature of future wars.
Don?t get me wrong: I had all those same privileges during my Iraq deployments, even while dealing with very real dangers when on patrol?dangers that cost our brigade 35 KIA during our first tour. (Frankly, I think the bizarre continual switching between the dangers outside the wire and the relatively normal life inside the wire may have something to do with the many mental health issues our veterans are suffering. It reminds me of the old Looney Tunes cartoon with the coyote and the sheepdog, who clock in and spend the day trying to kill each other, stop mid-fight when the whistle blows, then clock out and walk home as buddies. Somehow it seems to me that life-or-death shouldn?t have an on-off switch.)
My point is that the infantry I grew up in spent a couple of weeks at a time in the field (and I know active duty units often spent much longer). The intense moments of actual fighting are interspersed with long periods of slogging through the woods/jungle/fields/hills/desert with a ruck on your back, using whatever options Nature provides as your latrine, and after a week or so getting used to the smell of your buddies. It?s relieving yourself in a slit trench in the middle of a patrol base or assembly area. It?s ?bathing? with a handful of baby wipes. It?s recoiling in horror when you look up and see your drill sergeant standing stark naked ten feet away?facing you. (That little tidbit from Infantry OSUT is still burned into my brain all these years later.)
I?m not saying women can?t pee in front of guys, that they can?t be dirty, or that they can?t spend a month rucking through the bush. I?m just saying that as standards are crafted, those responsible need to distinguish between performing in the sharp moments that constitute combat and meeting the requirements of the ?long periods of intense boredom? made famous by the old quote about war.
In the end my opinion doesn?t matter. The U.S. military has a directive from its civilian leadership, and as we have for all these years we?ll execute it faithfully to the best of our abilities. I know some females will jump at the opportunity to be a tread head, a cannon cocker, or even a grunt. I know others will have not the least desire to go anywhere near those jobs. And in the end that?s what this is about: equal opportunity, and the right to do with that opportunity as each of us will. I just want to be sure that all of us?men and women alike?are standing shoulder to shoulder with comrades who are fully qualified to do the job at hand. Lives depend on it.