JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (March 19, 2013) -- In January, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the Pentagon's lifting of the ban on female service members in combat roles.
"It was a decision made upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Panetta said in a press release, Jan. 23.
The policy change was influenced by women's duties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Army and Marine Corps will begin to present plans to open combat jobs to female service members by May 15. The memo signed by Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey states the implementation will be complete by Jan. 1, 2016.
Maj. Nicole Vinson, the 51st Signal Battalion executive officer, has served almost 15 years in the Army, has seen the practical reasons behind the changes.
"I think what really brought (the decision) to the forefront is the way we fight now. We don't fight on linear battlefields anymore, and female Soldiers are actually there on the same forward operating bases," Vinson said.
Vinson, a mother of one and a Weldon, Ill., native, is optimistic about what this will mean for younger women in the Army.
"I think females will see opportunities open up where there weren't certain options before," Vinson said.
"I'm signal branch; as females we could go to (combat arms) brigades as an S6/signal officer, but before the change, that's where we were limited - we couldn't serve down at the battalions."
Early in her career, Vinson took an assignment with 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., following a stint with 35th Signal Brigade.
"When I was with 35th Signal Brigade, in the 327th Signal Battalion, it was on airborne status so there was always a big push to be a jump master. When I stepped in day one as a brand new second lieutenant, the question was 'hey, when are you going to jump master school?'"
Vinson decided she would take up that challenge.
"After you just get into that community and they mentor you and they train you to do what it takes to become a jumpmaster," Vinson said.
This far into her career, Vinson said she wouldn't move into combat arms, "But if I had it to do all over again I would say yes. The part that I see for me at this level is being able to take positions that I couldn't take before. I volunteered to go down to 3rd Bde. 82nd, and I loved that job because I learned so much."
In recent years, Vinson has seen the changing roles of female Soldiers in combat arms units.
"The forward support companies that belong to the brigade support battalions had females who were attached to the infantry battalions. So the females were down there anyway. But we couldn't send a female signal officer because that specific position was coded 'female restricted.'"
Vinson cites the female engagement teams, or FET, as another example.
"With FETs, female military police are out there constantly," she said.
A lot of units had to develop internal FET teams that would go out and work with all the male Soldiers out on missions. The Army is standardizing training for female Soldiers assigned to a FET team. A lot of women are migrating towards that, to the tryouts to be on FET teams.
Even with the expanded roles opened to females, Vinson mentions that there are still obstacles to overcome.
"For me, when I went into 3rd Brigade, the biggest concern was physical (capability)," she recalled. "I knew off the get-go that I'm not that big a person, but I'd have to work that much harder to be able to keep up, doing everything that you need to stay in the runs. You have to carry your own load marching from point A to B so that you don't become a burden."
Another difficulty, in her opinion, is the chivalrous mentality.
"I've talked to my guys; and some of them will say they would feel obligated, would have to protect (females) - but it's no different than you would protect any other battle buddy," Vinson said.
She made a point to say that she is not speaking for all women in the Army.
"My other concern, is there are so many different types of women in the military, just as there are so many different types of men," she said. "But what we see happening is one speaks for all. I don't think I can speak for all women in the military because I would love to be in a combat arms unit. I absolutely loved it. But that doesn't mean that somebody else would want to be that way. I don't think we can look at it as all in or out."