Women in Combat: Thoughts from a Female Marine Officer

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Over the last couple years, women’s roles in the US military have been expanding. On January 24, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the congressional ban on women serving in combat was lifted. Women can now officially serve in combat arms military occupational specialties and in ground combat units below the brigade level.  (The brigade level is approximately 3,500 troops and is furthest from the front lines. They act as mostly support units for the troops on the front line). This goes beyond GI Jane and could potentially open more 230,000 jobs for women in the service.

This has been a slow development. In May 2011, women were permitted to attend Submarine Officer Basic Course for the first time. In April 2012, the first female Marine officers attended Infantry Officer Course. Shocked as this new announcement may seem the reality is there are no front lines in today’s wars and women have been serving in combat unofficially for some time. This announcement will have consequences, both seen and unforeseen, for the military. After polling my military friends, male and female, here are a few things that will, or at least should, be addressed with this new announcement.

Are We Strong Enough?

Without a doubt, men are going to be concerned with whether or not women are physically able to perform the job. On November 27, 2012, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James F. Amos, signed an ALMAR (Marine Corps regulation) that women would no longer be doing a flex arm hang in the annual Physical Fitness Test (PFT), they would have to do pull ups like male Marines.

Starting January 1, 2013 female Marines will have the option to do pull ups for required PFTs. By 2014 will be required to do the exercise that the New York Times reported women weren’t physically capable of doing.  (I challenge that reporter to go to any Marine Corps base or Crossfit gym and announce to the world women can’t do pull ups again).

The military has until 2016 to make a case against women serving in Special Forces or other specific jobs that they physically may not be capable of doing.

Draft?

Another question that will need to be addressed is conscription. Now that all jobs are open to women in the military, will women have to register with the Selective Service System? Although this is seemingly like a moot point, it does address the responsibilities of this new measure of equality. The women in the service that I spoke to this week all agreed that this would help alleviate some of the biases that male service members perceive women to be privy to. Equality means equality, after all, not selective roles and responsibilities. A young male Marine that I served with actually brought this to my attention and I think it’s a very important issue to address.

Will sexual assault increase?

Whether or not women are in combat roles, there will be sexual assault in the military. I don’t like this fact, but as long as we tolerate it in the civilian world it will be present in the military world. Furthermore, it’s a problem for both male and female warriors. Would giving women more combat training build their confidence and ability to ward off an attack? Will the military hire more sexual assault victim advocates to increase training and, more important than numbers, provide women and men get help if it happens? This is an issue that the branches of the military and the Veterans Affairs Administration have been addressing, but is it enough? To the victims, no.

If the number of reported sexual assaults increase with this new regulation, will lawmakers backpedal and take these new opportunities away from women? Will that properly address the problem? As a knee jerk reaction, it might please the public, but it would be punishing women and victims, not helping anyone. Another way to consider it is looking at sexual assault at college campuses. As sexual assault rises on college campuses across America, are we going to ban women from going to college? Sexual assault, for both men and women, is a major problem in the military, but the military is a reflection of our society which is becoming, unfortunately, more and more tolerant of sexual assault on both men and women.

Will Unwanted Pregnancies Cause Deployment Problems?

Executive Order 10240: Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, signed by Harry Truman, prevented women who had a child, natural or by adoption, or was pregnant from serving in the military. Regardless of rank or how many years in service, if a woman became pregnant she was administratively discharged. This Executive Order was not lifted until 1975. It would seem we have come a long way since then, but the attitude of pregnant women in the military does not seem to have changed at all.

According to Reuters, “over ten percent of women in the military said in 2008 they’d had an unintended pregnancy in the last year.” According to this article, women can’t get access to birth control while deployed. Clearly this reporter has never been deployed or interviewed a single woman who has been deployed. While sexual assault and consenting sex does happen in combat zones, both are illegal per military regulations. Furthermore, any woman who wants oral contraceptives during a deployment can get a prescription filled for their entire deployment prior to leaving. I didn’t take oral contraceptives while deployed, but was offered hormones (either injection or oral contraceptives) in order to stop my periods while deployed. It’s standard practice to fill women’s prescriptions for the entire deployment. If I had changed my mind while deployed or had a medical condition and needed hormonal contraceptives for reasons other than birth control, because being stuck in a desert war zone, I could have easily gotten some on base. In today’s war zones, medical supplies are easily transported to even the most remote bases giving women access to that care if needed.

Furthermore, in this article it states, “Consensual sex among members of the same rank is legal. But women may be afraid to ask for condoms, for example, for fear people will think they are violating policy.” Apparently men who are trained to kill other men can’t buy or ask for condoms and it’s solely the woman’s responsibility. Furthermore, if a woman has an unplanned pregnancy, according to Reuters, a man doesn’t have any responsibilities for that action; it’s the female service members fault and problem.

I include this because it shows the mentality of the public and the military that is going to be forced to change. Yes, women have babies, but guess what – men are part of that act and have responsibilities as a father. Progress from Executive Order 10240, yes; but we still have a ways to go.

Female Gear?

With all the fiscal cliffs and cuts I doubt I’ll see this in my lifetime, but when will we see gear specifically designed for a woman? Besides injuries, some causing lifelong disabilities, the gear designed for men does not provide adequate protection for women in the military. As I reported in my article Army Tests Female Body Armor Designed like Xena: Warrior Princess, the Army is designing body armor for women, but whether they will get funding to develop and deploy it is yet to be heard.

What This Really Means for the Public, the Military and Women.

Whether you are for or against this ruling, it is set in action now. Military men will have to learn to accept that women are fully capable of performing the duties previously denied to us. Yes, it will change the culture, but this isn’t a bad thing. There will be more senior officers and enlisted as we will have more opportunities to command. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Army promoted the first four star general, Lt. Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody.

Women who fill these new official positions will have to perform their duties with exemplary manner to prove we can perform these jobs. Any time one single woman makes a mistake, dies, or proves she’s only human, it will sadly represent all women; pressure indeed. The reality is men and women will die in combat – men and women have been dying in war. Women have been serving in combat and with infantry units, but now it is official. This will provide better training for women who already are on the front lines and eventually better gear.

If you don’t want to see our troops dying, male or female, protest to your elected officials to pull our troops out of endless wars rather than punishing ambitious women who are capable of a lot more than they were previously allowed to do in the service.

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4 Comments

  1. All that needs to be said about women in combat is that our own
    troops are raping and sexually assaulting women in the military. The
    DOD has said that one in three women is sexually assaulted in the
    military and that they are estimating 50 assaults a day, BY OUR OWN
    TROOPS!

    They make this announcement then say now lets send women
    into combat. Dempsey actually said that women are probably getting
    assaulted because they aren’t in combat. REALLY!!!!

    This was a PR move by the DOD to take the focus off of sexual assault. And shame on
    all women and men who serve and are turning a blind eye to the problem.
    With numbers that big how can they all not know. When you signed up to
    serve and protect that meant people not your own careers!

    There’s a great site full of evidence
    “the us marines rape”

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. While I do agree with you that sexual assault in the military is a huge problem that should not be ignored, I still think this is a positive thing for women in the military. The statistics of sexual assault in the military are not that much worse (if at all) than the civilian world. The problem is, you have a very small percentage of women in the military, turning the odds against them. In the civilian world, the statistic is 1 in 3 women will be raped in her lifetime in America. More and more college campuses are seeing a huge increase in sexual assault cases (which are often swept under the rug because the school doesn’t want to get a reputation). We completely ignore this growing problem in the civilian world, but say military leaders aren’t doing enough. We have to understand that the military is part of our society. We have to change our society in order to change the military. Rules or regulations aren’t going to solve this problem, but merely put a sheer band-aid on it. In my opinion, opening these jobs to women could lead to less sexual assault; as more and more female leaders (officers and enlisted) rise to higher ranks because they now have the opportunities to lead and get promoted, they will have a bigger impact than any legislator, or regulation could. I could be wrong, but when I was in Iraq I wouldn’t allow the Marines in my shop to say, “Hajji” or “Raghead” or any of the other horrible terms that are culturally acceptable to use in the military. We were a supply shop so we constantly had Marines from other units in our office. Whenever someone from a different unit would say an offensive term, the Marines would quickly tell them, “Hey that’s not cool – can’t use that language in this shop.” Of course they could have gone to the gym, chow hall, other units and used these terms, but in my shop they knew I would not accept the behavior. Furthermore, members of the military come from the civilian world where they spent at least the first 18 years of life learning socially acceptable behavior. They were taught that sexual assault, harrasment and abuse is acceptable out there and brought it to the military. This problem is tragic and I tell every woman I meet who is thinking about going into the military to consider the statistics, but the problem spans more than just the military and more than just women. Men are being sexually assaulted in the military and civilian world as well. Our countries leaders have kept us at war for over ten years – out society is going to reflect the violence of our nation’s leaders (republicans and democrats are to blame for this). I’m not justifying it or accepting it, just trying to look at the cup half full and hope for a better future. I really appreciate your comment and this is such a huge issue that isn’t being addressed – worldwide, but to keep women out of combat units isn’t going to make the problem go away. I hope that the women who will bravely take on these new roles set new standards for the military – one where sexual assault isn’t tolerated!

  2. As a former military spouse I have to say that I really enjoyed this article. Excellent points and an article that I will share – great job.

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