On January 24 of this year, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed a memo to lift the ban on women in military combat operations.
The news cycle was full with coverage of this significant event for the next several days.
This author wrote about it in “Women in Combat: It is ‘Official’”
Yet, while the announcement made it “official,” women have been serving in combat and dying in combat for many years — “unofficially”?
In his press conference announcing the change in policy, Panetta himself referred to such fact. He said, “[Women are] serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield. The fact is that they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission.
Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism. A hundred and fifty-two women in uniform have died serving this nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Female servicemembers have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans.
President Obama, in his address on this subject, was equally specific:
This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, including more than 150 women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan—patriots whose sacrifices show that valor knows no gender.
Capt. Allison Black was one of those women who was “unofficially” in combat already more than 10 years ago.
As an AC-130H gunship navigator with the 1st Special Operations Group and less than 90 days after 9/11, Black was participating in her first combat mission in Afghanistan as the gunship’s navigator.
Her job: to plot routes, communicate with ground forces and identify targets in the darkness below.
And did they identify targets!
Bearded special forces soldiers were traveling on horseback armed with intelligence gained from Afghan Northern Alliance soldiers and Black and her crew were there to use high caliber rounds to create a problem for the Taliban.
The gunship had begun to take anti-aircraft fire from the Taliban, even though they had initially destroyed a bank of rocket launchers and several enemy trucks. With help from the Northern Alliance, and their general, Abdul Rashid Dostum, they identified a nearby safehouse hiding more than 200 Taliban and al Qaida soldiers.
As they approached their target, Black’s voice shattered the silence over the special forces soldiers’ field radios. The Northern Alliance general was in disbelief when he heard a woman’s voice over the radio: “A woman, sent to kill the Taliban.” Black said that he thought it was the funniest thing.
But with more than 400 40mm cannon and 100 105mm howitzer rounds on target, and more than 200 of the enemy killed, Black quickly was dubbed the “angel of death” by her Afghan counterparts.
According to Black, General Dostum “dialed into the Taliban frequency and told the enemy, ‘America is so determined, they bring their women to kill the Taliban. It is the ‘angel of death’ raining fire upon you.’”
For her actions, Black was one of six Airmen to receive the first Air Force Combat Action Medal and the first Air Force woman to receive a combat medal.
Black became a master navigator with more than 1,500 flying hours and 540 combat hours during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Commenting on the administration’s announcement to open all military career fields to women, Black said, “I think it — there’s going to be the standard and the standard needs to remain the same. You need to be physically, mentally and technically capable to do whatever job it is. And if you can meet those standards, bring it. You know, gender aside, we have to prepare our forces for the future fight. And it’s dynamic. It’s evolving, ever-changing. So introducing women into those key roles will be — might be that critical punch we need to deliver to the future enemy,” according to the U.S. Air Force news release.
Captain Black’s story was published by the U.S. Air Force during “Women’s History Month.”
To read more about Women in the U.S. Air Force being honored on this occasion, please go here.
U.S. Air Force graphic by Sylvia Saab
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.