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Posted by on Jan 28, 2013 in At TMV, Featured, Law, Media, Places, Society, War | 24 comments

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.

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  • ShannonLeee

    that sir, was very very well-written.

  • roro80

    I agree whole-heartedly with Shannon. Excellent piece, Dorian. Thanks.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Wow, finally I wrote something about women that that did not get me in trouble with the ladies. 😉

    Thank you, both.

  • dduck

    DDW, me too: “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.” That is why I hesitate to endorse the decision.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    I understand your hesitation fully, dduck. That is why I have “caveated” my conditional support on the basis that assignment of women into combat roles must be totally voluntary, especially if we return the draft.


  • ordinarysparrow

    Dorian i don’t know if this will really be the “final word” for there may be more to come in the transition… But for sure these are ‘substantial words’.

    Many thanks

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist


    Actually, my final word, for the time being. (Readers are probably getting sick and tired of me droning on about this)


  • dduck

    Ah, yes, the draft. It is dead now, but with the specter of women being drafted along side men it is even deader.

  • roro80

    I trust that the sentiment from dduck and Dorian — fear of women in harm’s way — is well-intentioned. So it is gently that I remind that most professions, sports, activities, and lifestyles were once out of the reach of women because of similar protective sentiments by the good men of the world. The less upstanding men used those same sentiments as the excuse to simply keep women from any form of power in their own lives. For the record, I don’t think the draft should exist for men either.

    If the government will do such a thing again, I see little reason women should not be subject to the same tyranny. If the thought of drafting women causes enough stomachs to flip that it keeps the government from reinstating the draft in its full form, so much the better, I suppose.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      I’ll take your reminder as “gently” as I can. 🙂

  • ordinarysparrow

    And yet… i embrace those sentiments…there are real differences to be honored and within both male and female…equal but not always the same…just saying there is lots of research that shows biological and brain differences… those too need acknowledgment and respect….

    We don’t need women to be less than her full potential nor do we need men to be less than theirs.. just respect and the willingness for both to live their fullness, if military combat is part of their choice…then so be it…

  • slamfu

    Several points. First, anyone who thinks women can’t cut it on the front lines needs to google the name Lyudmila Pavlichenko. The Russian’s weren’t sqeemish about this topic in WWII and used them to great effect. Nuff said.

    Second, if there is some sort of breakdown in discipline on the battlefield or off due to the introduction of women, then you simply have yourself a pre-existing discipline issue that needs to be addressed. To imply that the male soldiers will be driven insane with sexual urges and whatnot is the issue, not the women. Especially because there does seem to be an issue with this topic. I have friends in the JAG’s, and a woman in the army is in far greater statistical danger from her fellow soldiers than enemies. The rapes and other lesser misconducts and crimes are rampant and need to be addressed with the culture.

    Lastly, I personally think someone has to be crazy to volunteer for front line combat duty unless you have to, but that crazy is the first test to do the job I suppose. Good luck ladies.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Good points, except for the last one, slamfu.

      If “crazy” means being brave and patriotic enough to be willing to die for your country, then crazy it is.

  • roro80

    ordinarysparrow — I agree that the sentiments are valid; neither am I dismissing the real differences between men and women. But having seen the number of young men coming home wounded and broken over the last decade of needless war, it becomes more and more clear that front-line battle tears at the souls of our population regardless of the gender of those fighting.

    slamfu — you bring up a very good point. There does need to be a lot more leadership and learning among the military establishment about sexual assault. It needs to start with greater acknowledgement that it is a problem and it is not ok.

  • slamfu

    DDW, the operative words are “unless you have to”. As far as I can tell the last war we had to get involved with was WWII. Everything since then has been a voluntary action against a nation that was no threat to the sovereignty of the US. Some were more well founded than others(Serbia, Kuwait, Afghanistan), and other were just products of foreign policy gone wrong(Vietnam, 2nd Iraq). I’m willing to sign up and risk my skin if its a matter of defending our shores, or going after those who will be doing so soon enough, but going out to catch a bullet for politicians who can barely tie their own shoes and want to make terrorists out to be the biggest threat since the Soviet Union is not high on my list of to-do’s.

    That being said, we still need and army, and there is nothing wrong with being willing to die for your country. But as Patton said, I’d prefer we make the other guy die for his.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Thanks for explaining, slamfu. It’s understood.

  • My only objection is the notion that women get to serve in combat if they want to, not because they have to.

    Men aren’t given an option: if they sign up they go where they’re told. It should be no different for women. This isn’t about glamor and prestige. This is about saying if you want equality, you don’t get special choices to opt out because of sex.

  • zusa1

    Dean, you make a good point. The incremental change though is to allow women to opt in, as opposed to a mandatory opt out.

  • ordinarysparrow

    Men aren’t given an option: if they sign up they go where they’re told. It should be no different for women. This isn’t about glamor and prestige. This is about saying if you want equality, you don’t get special choices to opt out because of sex.

    Dean after men give birth to the first baby from between their legs and supple the infant to their breast, then and only then will i see equality of the sexes as being the same…. for a very large segment of women there are very real biological differences that would be prohibitive for them to be on the front line of combat…Some can match the required standards, but many will not…

    Equality of the sexes does not mean that women have to become men and fully posses all of the masculine strengths and attributes. … Some can and most possess varying degrees, yet equality of sex does not mean same biological physiology.

    That is a punitive and narrow view..

  • zusa1

    OS, you make a good point too, but should all women in the service have to test for combat and those who meet the requirements have to go?

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Guys and gals, here’s something to munch on:

      Officials to Study More Roles for Women in Special Ops

      WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2013 – With women already providing direct support in special operations, officials are studying how to open more positions that currently are open only to men, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said here today.

      Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced last week that the 1994 policy that excluded women from serving in direct ground combat positions is rescinded.

      “We have had women supporting direct special operations for quite some time,” Navy Adm. William H. McRaven noted today. “So I am fully supportive of Secretary Panetta and the chairman’s decision to do this — and frankly, so were all the service chiefs and combatant commanders.”

      Special operations forces include a number of women with specialized language, cultural and special skills training, but McRaven acknowledged that Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and other “door-kicking” special operations units have never included women. Socom leaders have an opportunity over the next few years to assess how to open the command’s ranks to women, McRaven said.

      “I’m required to report back to the secretary, by the first quarter of [fiscal 2016], a plan on how to integrate them,” he added.

      The new guidance requires that standards be gender-neutral, the admiral noted. “We never had gender standards, … because we had no female population. … We had an all-male population that was going to become Rangers, or SEALs, or infantrymen,” he said. “So that was the standard.”

      McRaven said he and his staff are looking forward to figuring out ways to integrate women into direct special operations roles.

      “I guarantee you, there will be females out there that will come to [basic underwater demolition/SEAL] training or be Rangers … and will do a phenomenal job,” he said.


  • ordinarysparrow

    ” Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? ”
    Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

    Zusai….’yes’, ‘no’, ‘maybe’, ‘i don’t know’…my mud is still settling…

    It gets complicated for i detest that any nation, must resort to sending men and/or women into combat …don’t want that for any one…

  • zusa1

    OS, my mud is not settled either. You have to admire the women (and men) who volunteer for this and that alone means something.

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    I think until men give birth to babies, carrying them, suffering with all the pain of giving birth and caring up close to the child/children daily, nightly until the age of majority, there cannot be ‘equality’ between/amongst the genders, no matter who yells, whispers, bellows about such. In some cases, men are the caregivers of children, but not the carriers of the pregnancies that brought the children.

    Sauce for the goose/gander somehow being the same is bombastic, not thoughtful. And tiresome. Thought is different than having an ax to grind about gender. Thoughtfulness is different than wanting to punish either gender, rather than lift the genders. Purposely wishing either gender to suffer leaves no room for regardful dialogue. Purposely wishing men or women pain equal to what one imagines has been suffered by x, is revenge, not peace, not progression. Just my 02.

    I’m with several others here. I would rather do away with war, than add anyone of any gender, to it. I come from a military family, am a military wife 21 years USAF… and take pride in it… and/ when you see the destructions of war up close, very few, except some of those who have never served long term and cheek to cheek, would ever fantasize about war being a ground basis for equality of anything.

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