Forthcoming women-in-combat policy change draws mixed reactions at Fort Lee
January 31, 2013
FORT LEE, Va. (Jan. 31, 2013) -- During the Revolutionary War, before women could legally join the Army, Margaret Corbin threw aside convention and joined her husband on the battlefield, assisting him as he performed duties as a cannoneer. When he suffered wounds and couldn't continue, she took over his position and was wounded as well.
While carrying out her duties in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester and members of her squad suppressed an ambush of their convoy, killing 27 enemy fighters as a result. She earned the Silver Star for her actions and took exception to her accomplishment as it relates to her gender.
"It really doesn't have anything to do with being a female," she said. "It's about the duties I performed that day as a Soldier."
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, surely acknowledging the service and sacrifices of women like Corbin and Hester, last week signed a memorandum that initiated efforts to allow women to enter jobs more likely to put them in the midst of combat.
"If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation," he said at the Jan. 25 signing that included the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Indirect combat jobs such as a helicopter pilot have been open to women for years; however, the services generally restrict women to support roles as spelled out in a 1994 policy. That will change in the future when women will be provided with the opportunity to compete for an undetermined number of combat-arms related military specialties. The memorandum directed each of the services to devise and submit a strategy for implementation by May. Implementation is scheduled to start this year and conclude in 2015.
The secretary's policy change was most assuredly ground breaking. Women's rights advocates rejoiced, and the media clamored for more details. But the reaction at Fort Lee, home to many female and male sustainment warriors, was a bit subdued. In fact, many military members reacted to the news with a certain level of casualness, partly because the decision only validates what women have historically done and because today's male and female warriors have grown so accustomed to jointly serving in war zones that the announcement came off as a ho-hum event.
"I think it's the right decision," said Staff Sgt. Taylor Walthers, an instructor assigned to the Quartermaster School's Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department. "The lines were blurred when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan. It was no longer women staying back (behind the lines). I was a .50 cal gunner for a convoy support operation. There was no problem with it. We have women on the front lines all the time now. It's not an issue."
Master Sgt. Gerald L. Napper agreed. He said at a point in time when the country has been at war for more than a decade and fighting an unconventional war in which support personnel are threatened as much as infantrymen, the concept of women in combat is a moot point.
"The question at this point is not whether women are capable of doing the job," said the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Installation Equal Opportunity Office. "It's when will the changes take place."
More than 280,000 women have deployed to Southwest Asia since 2001, according to the Department of Defense. Roughly 150 have been killed, and more than 800 have been wounded.
Patricia Sigle, a post contract employee, Women's Army Corps veteran and retired lieutenant colonel, said the decision to lift the ban is less about the person and more about whether one has the desire to serve, and access to the opportunity to pursue that desire.
"It does not matter if you are male or female, black or white or any other color, gay or straight," she said. "If you want to serve your country, you should have the right to do so."
The right to serve in any military capacity is one thing, but meeting the qualifications is another issue. Currently, those who aspire to join the ranks must meet certain physical requirements upon entry that are tailored to gender-specific abilities. Several Fort Lee Soldiers said the success of any policy change rests upon the notion of equity -- they don't want to see the standards changed or modified to accommodate women in any particular job or career field.
"As long as we ask for the same standards and compete by the same standards, the males aren't going to have a problem with it," said Walthers. "It's when you start lowering the standards to let women in. That's where you're going to have a problem."
Sgt. 1st Class Sherry Williams, the sexual assault response coordinator at the IEOO, also said the measuring stick should be the same but added the bar shouldn't be raised to prevent women from competing either.
"Set the standard so that both can meet the standard," she said.
With all of the publicity surrounding the forthcoming policy changes, the next few months may be much anticipated. Currently, the Army has 438 military occupational specialties, or MOSs.
Of those, 418 are open to women. Gen. Robert W. Cone, commanding general, Training and Doctrine Command, said allowing women to move into combat arms jobs will require a change in climate before moving ahead and a proactive posture to "mitigate resistance to women going into these specialties," he said. "We want the right environment for women."
Many installation military members agreed that a gradual pace is essential to the process of change and expressed a reluctance to not look too far ahead, noting that change is never easy.
"No, I do not expect women to flock to the combat arms MOSs until such time they know that everything has been thought out and equal treatment is guaranteed for men and women," said Sigle. "There will always be rough water. It is how the service chooses to deal with the issues causing the rough water that will set the tone for future actions and events."
Walthers, like Sigle, expects that change will come slowly.
"People are always going to be adverse to change," she said. "It's something different. It's something new, but change can always be for the best as long as people are willing to embrace it."