Ending U.S. combat ban will even career playing field, servicewomen say

Wed Jan 23, 2013 11:04pm EST

U.S. Army soldier SSG Norma Gonzales of 426 Civil Affairs Battalion reads a magazine while waiting to be ferried by a helicopter to different U.S. military bases in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, in this October 11, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/Files

U.S. Army soldier SSG Norma Gonzales of 426 Civil Affairs Battalion reads a magazine while waiting to be ferried by a helicopter to different U.S. military bases in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, in this October 11, 2012 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro/Files

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(Reuters) - A Pentagon decision to lift a ban on women in front-line combat roles will remove an obstacle that stymied women's careers but had little meaning on modern battlefields with no clear front lines, U.S. military women said on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to formally announce on Thursday that he will lift the policy that excluded women from units whose main job is to engage in combat, U.S. defense officials said.

"Everyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is in combat by the very nature of those conflicts," said Peggy Reiber, who retired from the Marine Corps 16 years ago as a first sergeant and lives in a San Diego suburb.

"Women have certainly fought equally and died equally, it's time we were recognized equally."

The move, which could open thousands of fighting jobs to female service members for the first time, knocks down another societal barrier in the U.S. armed forces after the Pentagon in 2011 scrapped its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

"I feel like it's beyond time," said Staff Sergeant Tiffany Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, describing the move as an overdue recognition that women already serve in combat.

But not all were pleased by the decision. The conservative Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee complained the move could detract from the military's role in protecting the country.

"Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness," the group's president, Penny Nance, said.

Defense officials said the decision to end the ban was made by Panetta, and that individual military services would have until 2016 to seek exemptions if they believe any combat roles should remain closed to women.

Women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq during the last dozen years have accompanied Marines on house raids so they could conduct weapons searches on Muslim women captives who could not be frisked by men. They drive trucks in supply convoys and pilot low-flying cargo planes, dangerous jobs that make them a target.

"They're prime targets because people want the supplies and want to eliminate the supply line," said Suzanne Lachelier, a Navy reserve commander who has served on active duty, though not in combat zones.

"Women are already at risk anyway, so the combat distinction is false at this point," said Lachelier, a Navy lawyer whose work has taken her to Sudan and Yemen.

COMBAT RIBBONS

Women's combat roles were not recognized and the men they served alongside got the combat ribbons and ensuing promotions, several military women said.

"I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches," said Anu Bhagwati, 37, a Marine captain who said she left the service in 2004 in large part because of the combat exclusion policy.

Bhagwati is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, one of the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Panetta in November, claiming the ban was unconstitutional because it discriminated against women.

"There are many incredibly talented, gifted, enthusiastic, hard-charging Marines that I knew who left the Marine Corps because of combat exclusion policy," said Bhagwati, who lives in New York City.

She said that under Panetta, the military had made great progress in fighting discrimination and harassment of women. She called the move "a historic moment" that she hadn't expected to come so soon.

Newly elected Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard, an Army captain in the Hawaii National Guard who was twice deployed to the Middle East, said American female service members have contributed on the battlefield as far back as the U.S. Civil War, when some disguised themselves as men.

"It is crucial that we shed light on the great value and opportunities that these women bring," Gabbard said.

Several military women said they had no doubts women could meet the physical requirements for combat.

"There are some men that aren't in shape ... It's just a matter of training," said Saki Mines, a 29-year-old Army National Guard pilot who was twice deployed to Iraq and is preparing for duty in Egypt but who said her application to become a pilot with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment was rejected because of her gender.

"Everybody knows combat infantry troops are for men only. The other jobs, I don't think most people were aware of the (ban)," Mines said, adding the move to lift the ban was "great."

(Reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami; Additional reporting by Rebecca Rose in Killeen, Texas; Marty Graham in San Diego; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Eric Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)

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Comments (4)
mrmouth wrote:
This is symbolic. And I have no issue with it until they start forcing things. Women have long proven themselves in many areas that modern infantry are tasked with. But there are issues.

The Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan showed perfectly the potential drawbacks of women in a combat zone in that often it was their male counterparts that had to physically carry what the females could not. And that is a major reason as to why there will always be a difference in what can be achieved.

So with these great increases in weight shouldered by our Soldiers and Marines, comes all manner of chronic injury, right down to degenerative issues and stress fractures. That is greatly amplified with women. That is nature.

And even the out of shape male infantryman is going to be able to evacuate their comrade if need be – whether by dragging or carrying that casualty. That casualty might weigh upwards of 300 lbs.

Women can serve at forward posts and bases. Absolutely. They can shoot. They certainly can (and have) go on mounted patrols and light foot patrols. But there are always going to be fundamental drawbacks that need to be accepted, and accounted/planned for.

Jan 23, 2013 11:43pm EST  --  Report as abuse
4ngry4merican wrote:
mrmouth – Your openmindedness is to be commended, and your concerns have already been addressed. There is already in place a provision for commanding officers to request that women be excepted from their units for the reasons you mention.

Jan 24, 2013 11:02am EST  --  Report as abuse
grant7843 wrote:
This is a very poor decision. Why aren’t women in the NFL? Why do we have a seperate professional basketball leagues for men and women? We have a WNMA and a NBA. Why don’t men and women compete against one another in USA Track and Field? Why do we still have segregated bathrooms and locker rooms? Fast moving combat units may not have the luxury of having seperate shower/bathroom/changing areas. How will this complicate the Military’s problem with sexual assualt? 1 in 4 women report being raped while deployed. Why hasn’t the US military in the last 40 years created physical performance standards that are equal for both men and women? Women’s standards are always lower than their male counter parts. These are all good questions we need to answer, despite how unpolitically correct they are.

Jan 24, 2013 2:51pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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