The Combat Ban Lift for Women in the Military is only the first step
Like a bullet that won’t stop ricocheting in my brain, I keep thinking about the Pentagon’s new move to lift the ban on women in combat roles for our U.S. military. As a female veteran who served in combat conditions (because technically when I served, that was a no-no), this feels like – no, is– a huge victory.
For all the bluster the conservatives talk about the military not being a social experiment, it has been for all of time – at least in the United States. It has been, often, a mirror of progressive societal expectations of equality. Because the bottom line should be that if you want to die for your country – no one should care what race, sexual orientation or gender you are.
Granted, the Department of Defense throughout its history has taken baby steps before full acceptance. For instance, separate units for persons of color, initially – Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, et al – before men of color, were fully integrated into the service in 1951 (which was three years following the executive decree allowing for desegregation of the military branches)*. In 1993, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was established regarding sexual orientation. In 2011, it was abolished and individuals could openly serve regardless of sexual orientation. . The same thing happened for women; in 1941 the Women Army Auxillery Corps was established. Integration and separation again and then re-integration was the path that women service members endured. My own basic training class was the last all-female battalion at Fort Jackson, S.C. before basic training was desegregated again in 1993. At that time women had been slowly gaining ground throughout the decades until 1994 when the Pentagon decreed the ban on women in combat rolls. There was a group of us that went to the Balkans and then went back to Germany because they suddenly decided that our gender was not fit for the environment. However, by 1995 they sent us back again because our boots filled crucial jobs that they couldn’t get our male counterparts to do – saving them for the 11-series MOS’s (mission occupational specialty) like infantry, mortar, combat engineer, et al.
Regardless, the combat ban remained. Although the walls of the Pentagon had already rumbled with stories about women excelling beyond their male counterparts or performing above and beyond, they weren’t ready to fly in the face of societal tradition (although it was hardly the norm for women in all of America to be back seat drivers in 1994…).
Then the Gulf War happened. “Peacekeeping” missions like Bosnia, Macedonia, Rwanda, Haiti, and the like happened. Then 9/11 and the War on Terror, which spawned Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Female Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen** serving in mission-occupational specialties like cooks, truck drivers, supply specialists, and public and civil affairs found themselves under fire and having to fire back. There was example after example of women doing extraordinary things in combat situations. In 2011, special all-female units were deployed to do patrols in Afghanistan.
Then last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the military’s ban on women serving in combat.
Let the party commence, right?
Actually, no. It’s just another baby step. Why? Because, first we’ll have to listen to all the naysayers. The Allen West and George Will types of the world – the second of which has NO military experience and therefore his opinion holds little water. Mr. West’s military experience gives me pause because of the scandal that had him give up his commission. When people like David Furm (of Axis of Evil fame) comment – I really don’t give much credence to him. For one thing, he’s Canadian (you don’t see me commenting on what Canadian policies should or should not be); secondly, again, no military experience. Don’t even get me started on folks who hold hardcore conservative religious views who want to apply biblical manhood and womanhood standards (again debatable) to the constitutional equality due to every citizen. The constitution upholds your freedom of religion. It also upholds that I am free from your religious beliefs as well.
Others want to discuss things like men not being able to control their sexual urges (or men will be degraded if female comrades have to see them use the toilet). That argument may have a stronger foundation if we were still conscription military. But we have an all-volunteer force. It is a professional military, folks. If you’re not professional, the institution has rules, laws and a code that is much stronger than most state or federal laws (Uniform Code of Military Justice). I’m not going to allow the discussion of this particular event devolve into the military rape and/or military suicide rate discussion. That’s for another time.
Women opposed to the ban being lifted – e.g. Elaine Donnelly (a protégé of Phyllis Schlafly who put women’s rights back decades) or Penny Nance (who can’t even put out a press statement that makes sense) I find are the most egregious voices against not only women in the military’s equality, but women’s equality, period. Again, these two examples have no experience in the military and seem bent on keeping women barefoot and pregnant.
Other opposition points may try to bring forward the point about strength differences between men and women. I’m here to tell you that there were plenty of men that I served along side of who knew and openly admitted when their fellow female Soldiers were stronger and harder working. (We won’t get into how many of us during my time of active duty – and likely today – feel the need to work harder, longer, be faster, stronger and smarter than their male counterparts. Again, that’s another post for another day.) Also, before you throw the “carry a fallen comrade off the battlefield scenario,” why don’t you go talk to some of the female firefighters and other first responders around the nation? You’re taking small arms fire and you need to move a wounded Soldier (provided their injuries allow that – otherwise you’re going to hold ground and fight off the enemy until more help arrives)? You’re going to do it like any firefighter in the nation does it. Google or YouTube women lifting men via firemen carry. See what I mean?
Also, have you seen many of the mission occupational specialties? Even in a combat environment, they are requiring more intellectual tact and finesse or behind a computer or steering wheel than behind a weapon. Physical capability doesn’t come into play here. Stamina, perhaps. But not physical strength. Also strength is measure differently. I’ve seen female military members de-escalate a situation faster than their male counterparts. I’ve seen women anticipate and react faster and more cool-headed than their male counterparts. I refer you again to the professional nature of our military in this regards. Gender has nothing to do with it. Training, however, does.
However, the physical part does bring up a part of the behind-the-scenes part of this combat ban being lifted that doesn’t make it equitable. To truly make this ban lift a step in the equitable direction we have to change two other things. I’m referring to: Selective Service and physical standards testing – APFT for those in the Army, which because my experience is with that branch, I’ll use as a reference.
Although, I think the usefulness of the Selective Service has long since past – becoming really obsolete once we went to an all-volunteer force – we need to have all citizens, male or female register. Then, truly it’s an equitable thing. (This, by the way, is where Schlafly got her biggest foothold in killing the ERA movement.) I will likely alienate myself from those who are all gung-ho about women being combat soldiers by suggesting that their daughters, as well as their sons, should register for the Selective Service. This, however, may very well prompt some more critical thinkers to discuss why we even still have a draft registry. (Cue the Conspiracy Theorists….) Regardless, either requiring women to register or abolishing the Selective Service is truly going to make it equal.
Finally, I’m a true proponent of the philosophy of one standard for the APFT. There should not be the double standard that there is now, which for those that do not know is one standard for men, which is considerably tougher and another for women. Ask any military leader – they will tell you they want strong troops, regardless of gender
When the news broke that the Hon. Panetta had lifted the ban, I quickly commented that if I was not so old – I would easily be back in boots, even given the likelihood that I wouldn’t have to fight to walk patrols as I did back during my military heyday, but would likely be sought out for my ability to communicate with people (as well as document what happened). However, this is just a baby step. We still need to address Selective Service and Physical Fitness Standards.
Even so, I want to send out my congratulations to all the Mollys out there – and the Joes whose backs you’ll have. Some of us paved the road for you with our own service, sacrifices and professionalism. Go get ‘em. Make this Old Army Crone proud. I have full faith and confidence that you will. And then some.
*An interesting history note, men of color were integrated from the time of the birth of our country until the war of 1812, when the services were segregated. Seems our country had a bit of an equality backslide between 1812 and 1948.