Women in Combat: A Final Word

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Maryrose Sierra, left, a member of the female engagement team assigned to Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, and 1st Lt. Marissa Loya, the team’s commanding officer, celebrate New Year’s Eve at Combat Operating Post Bandini in Afghanistan Dec. 31, 2010. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum)

So much has already been said and written about the Pentagon’s decision lifting the ban on women serving in combat that any additional commentary is almost redundant.

But, having given my personal opinion on this issue — for whatever it’s worth — and having provided the official reactions of our Military Services, perhaps it is appropriate to listen to what two former members of the military who “have been there, have done that” have to say about it.

But first — for redundancy’s sake — my view.

On a personal and emotive level — thinking about our daughters, our sisters and wives and mothers everywhere — I cringe at the thought of what can happen to a woman in combat. The thought of a woman being injured, killed or captured — and worse — frightens me.

On the other hand, I respect the patriotism and mettle of those women who want to serve their country on an equal basis as their male counterparts and I must — albeit ambivalently — agree that those women able and willing to serve in combat roles should be allowed to do so. I will say a prayer for them.

As to all the tired arguments that women should not serve in combat because they will compromise unit cohesiveness and readiness, because it will be a danger to efficiency, morale and discipline, “social experimentation” and all that other biased balderdash, it suffices to say that these are the very same fallacious arguments that have been used to oppose the full racial integration of our military, the full assimilation of women into our armed forces to begin with, the entry of women into our military service academies, to oppose women serving aboard Navy ships and on nuclear submarines and to prevent gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

There are numerous testimonials from those who have commanded and served under fire alongside women exposing the absurdity of such arguments and attesting to the physical, mental and emotional ability of women to serve in combat roles.

In NPR’s most recent Weekend Edition Sunday, former Army Special Forces medic Greg Jackson, one of the first combat medics to serve in Afghanistan along with special teams of female soldiers, gave his views on this issue.

This is some of what he had to say.

When asked by NPR’s host Rachel Martin what Jackson thinks about the Pentagon’s decision to roll back the combat exclusion policy, Jackson replied that he believes the military is coming down on the right side of history: “I think the arguments that I tend to hear the most just don’t carry a whole lot weight. I hear a lot about women affecting unit cohesion. And I have a history degree, so I think I heard a lot of those same types of concerns when they were talking about integrating African-Americans into combat units,” and — commenting on a frequently heard myth:

One of the other things I hear is the idea of if the woman is wounded, men will expose themselves unnecessarily because of some type of heightened emotional bond you may have with seeing a woman hurt. And I’m not sure what unit they came from but it couldn’t have been a combat unit. Because every unit that I know there’s not a whole lot you wouldn’t do for the guys next to you.

I know there certainly wasn’t anybody on my team that I wasn’t prepared to die for and I know that they would die for me. And it’s not something that you think or it’s not your opinion – it’s something you know.

On the “suggestion that having women in these units, there’s very little privacy” and that as a result of putting men and women together “there can be sexual, romantic distractions that will jeopardize the mission,” Jackson replied:

What I think about that is that it’s minimizes the professionalism and intelligence that the individual soldier is capable of displaying. And you have 19-year-olds making life-and-death decisions regularly. I think you can depend on a 19-year-old to decide whether or not it’s appropriate to engage in that type of behavior and/or focus on the mission instead. And I think most times, when you get to these combat units, people are focused on the mission. You know, I’ve been shot at a number of times. And I can to tell you how many times I was actually thinking about hanky-panky and that would be zero.

Or ask Air Force Staff Sergeant Stacy Pearsall who was deployed twice to Iraq and, during her second deploymnet, was attached to an Army ground unit that was clearing roadside bombs when “one of their armored personnel carriers exploded.”

As Sergeant Pearsall tells the story to New York Times’ James Dao, “her vehicle came under intense fire…The male soldiers in her carrier had already dashed out to join the fight, so she jumped onto the machine gun and began returning fire”:

Outside a soldier lay unconscious. Sergeant Pearsall opened the rear door and crawled to the man, who was 6-foot-2 and more than 200 pounds, twice her weight. From behind him, she clasped him in a bear hug and dragged him toward the vehicle. She fell once, then again. Somehow, she hauled him into the armored safety of the carrier.

After tearing off his protective vest, she realized his carotid artery had been torn by shrapnel. As blood spurted all over, she closed her eyes, stuck her fingers into his neck and squeezed. He screamed, and she thanked the heavens. He was still kicking.

What happened next seemed almost cinematic. Emerging from a purplish haze outside, a medic jumped into the carrier and set his kit beside her. “Are you a medic?” he asked.

Heck no, Sergeant Pearsall replied. “I’m the photographer.”

Reflecting on Representative Duncan Hunter’s “The question here is whether this change will actually make our military better at operating in combat, specifically finding and targeting the enemy,” James Dao at the Times says, “Ask Sergeant Pearsall, who was decorated for her actions in Baquba and received a medical retirement from the Air Force in 2008, and the answer is simple: Yes, women can do it, and I already have,” and he adds, “During her four-month Iraq tour in 2007 — cut short by injuries — she went on patrols almost daily, wearing the same heavy body armor and Kevlar helmet as the men, while lugging camera equipment. She, too, came under fire. She, too, fired back. She, too, saw friends die.”

In Parsall’s own words, “I didn’t sit around thinking: ‘I’m a woman, I don’t think I can carry this gun. And I can’t speak for the men, but I feel that when the bullets were flying, they didn’t care that I was a woman, as long as I was pulling the trigger.”

Or ask so the thousands of women who — while technically barred from serving in combat — have honorably, oftentimes heroically, served on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, who have been shot at and have shot back, who have earned Purple Hearts and other medals for valor and heroism. Of course, we cannot ask the 152 women in uniform who have already made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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