Are Women in the U.S. Military Ready for the Frontline of War?
In November 2013, history was made in the Marine Corps. For the first time, the graduating infantry class included three women who had endured a grueling nine week combat training course. They were the first women to do so as part of a Marine Corps pilot program that required women to meet the same minimum physical standards as men. Of the fifteen women that started with them, they were the only three to make it until the end.
Nevertheless, the three women are not bound for combat positions just yet.
In January of last year, the Department of Defense announced that the 1994 Combat Exclusion Rule, which restricted women from serving in frontline infantry, armor and special operations units, would be lifted. At Congress’ instruction, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta instructed the services to develop plans for gender integration in combat roles, as well as a list of† positions that would be opened up to women. A January 2016 compliance deadline has been set.
Six months later, military officials began studies to determine the best methods of training and which roles, if any, should remain closed to women. The one point all military leaders agreed on, however, was that the requirements, including physical ones, were not going to be lowered for women. If they were going to be on the frontline with men, they had to make sure they could keep up.
The approaches toward meeting these gender-neutral goals reflect the uniqueness of the individual military branches.
The Marine Corps by nature is go hard or go home, which is exactly the way they began their training program. They sought volunteers interested in the program and put them directly into the infantry training programs, requiring them to meet the same minimum standards as men, though what was considered a perfect score differed slightly. After more than half of the women failed to reach even the minimum physical requirements, the Marine Corps has slowed down their timetable of having women in combat units by 2015. While no new timetable has been announced, they feel the delay is necessary to determine a new approach.
Some argue that its standards arenít the problem, itís the way women need to be trained. The Marines already have gender-specific boot camps, understanding that women need to take different approaches to reach the same goal.
The Army, however, has not put any women into combat training programs, choosing to first determine the physical requirements for specific combat roles. With a job-oriented focus, approximately 500 random soldiers from eight different brigades performed hundreds of tasks required in 31 specialties to create baseline requirements. They now have gender-neutral standards which will allow them to determine what specialties can be opened up to women.
While there are some combat jobs already opening up in other services such as the Navy, many question whether women should be part of ground forces.
When the announcement was made last January, Israelís Army, which has long been touted as the most gender integrated military force in the world, was seen as a guide. However, even though 92 percent of I.D.F. positions such as fighter pilots, infantry captains, and Humvee drivers are open to women, only 3 percent of them are held by women. Israel’s long history of women in combat has not made the idea of women killing and being killed any easier for its citizens to handle. Even if women are willing to volunteer, military structural resistance has made their appearance on the frontline limited.
Women being injured and killed in the more than decade long fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan has done little to change the minds of many Americans. Many soldiers, including women, believe that a ground war isnít a womanís place.
As Marine Captain Katie Petronio says, when it comes to combat, women are not created equal.
She agrees that some combat roles should definitely be opened up to the many capable female soldiers, but infantry should not be one of them. Her five years in service, including deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, have left her suffering much of the physical degradation that her male counterparts suffered, but at a much faster rate. Her 5 foot 3 inch frame is not the same as it once was, which at the beginning of her service would have probably allowed her to be one of the few women to pass the new minimum Corps requirements for infantry. The former college hockey player suffers from muscle degeneration, restless leg syndrome and non-hereditary infertility.
As she points out, there is no data on the effects the chemical, physical and mental demands of that frontline combat on women. As scientific studies of various diseases from AIDS to cancer have shown, women suffer the consequences of environmental stresses differently. This doesnít mean they are weaker or less qualified, it just means they are different.
When it comes to war, itís not about political correctness, itís about life and death.
She writes in the Marine Corps Gazette, ďThe bottom line is that the enemy doesnít discriminate, rounds will not slow down, and combat loads donít get any lighter, regardless of gender or capability. Even more so, the burden of command does not diminish for a male or female; a leader must gain the respect and trust of his/her Marines in combat. Not being able to physically execute to the standards already established at IOC, which have been battle tested and proven, will produce a slower operational speed and tempo resulting in increased time of exposure to enemy forces and a higher risk of combat injury or death.Ē
As women, weíve come a long wayÖbut is war really where we want to go?