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.
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.
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.