Military Watches
Find us on Facebook


Printer Friendly VersionPrinter Friendly VersionSend to a FriendSend to a Friend

What Will It Mean for the Troops?
By Harold Hutchison

On 24 January, 2013, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat down at a press conference to announce a major change in the Department of Defense’s policy on women in combat. Women would now be allowed to serve in direct ground combat units.

“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 service members have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans. However, many military positions, particularly in ground combat units, still remain closed to women because of the 1994 direct ground combat definition and assignment rule,” Panetta said.

“The chairman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I believe that we must open up service opportunities for women as fully as possible. And therefore today, Gen. Dempsey and I are pleased to announce that we are eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women and we are moving forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” Panetta added.

It is not unusual to hear of heroism by women in the War on Terror. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Major Kim “Killer Chick” Campbell earned a Distinguished Flying Cross with Combat Distinguishing Device for bringing back a damaged A-10. Monica Lin Brown and Leigh Ann Hester earned the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor, during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

General Dempsey described one instance while visiting Iraq in the 24 January press conference. “In 2003, when I got to Baghdad, as the commander of 1st Armored Division, my first foray out of the forward operating base, I hopped into the up-armored Humvee, and I asked the driver, you know, who he was, where he was from, and I slapped the turret gunner around the leg, and I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she leaned down and said, ‘I'm Amanda.’ And I said, ‘Ah, okay.’ So, female turret-gunner protecting division commander. And it's from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it,” he said.

Nobody denies that women have been in harm’s way while serving in the military. Even peacetime – or relative peacetime – has had its risks. Female aviators have died in crashes, and two women were killed in the attack on USS Cole (DDG 67). However, is America really ready to have women go into direct ground combat slots?

Elaine Donnelly, of the Center for Military Readiness, said, “One woman’s exclusion is another woman’s exemption.” On 5 December, 2012, the author interviewed her in light of an ALCU lawsuit that had been filed to overturn the rules regarding assignment of women to direct ground combat. In a follow-up interview, done on 8 February, the author discussed the issues further with Ms. Donnelly.

Ms. Donnelly has been involved with military personnel issues for three decades, which includes a stint on the Defense Advisory Commission on Women in the Service (DACOWITS), and on a Presidential commission in 1991–92. One thing that stood out was that when she would ask questions, military officers would not answer when members of the press were present, but would later take her aside and tell her the question was on the mark.

There is also a question as to whether the vast majority of women even wanted the change. In a 2001 survey, the Army Research Institute found that only 26 percent of enlisted women favored allowing women to volunteer for direct combat positions. But the survey dropped that question starting in 2002. In that absence, the only voices heard were those of the advocates, who were very aggressive.

One major concern Elaine Donnelly has expressed has been over whether standards would be lowered. There may be some justification for that concern, given the comments from General Dempsey in the press conference.

“The other part of the equation, of course, is in order to account for their safety and their success in those kinds of units, we got to have enough of them so that they have mentors and leaders above them. You know, you wouldn't want to take one woman who can meet a standard and put her in a particular unit. You know, not – the issue there wouldn't be privacy. It would be, you know, where's her ability to have upward mobility and compete for command if she's one of one? So we have to – we do have to work both the standards and the – kind of the critical mass, if you will, to make this work. But that's what – that's our commitment,” Dempsey said.

The “critical mass” comment raises real questions. What would this “critical mass” be? If there are not enough qualified female volunteers for the combat arms, will some be ordered to combat arms units, or will the standard be lowered to achieve some nebulous “diversity metric” to placate advocates and/or politicians? It would help if the military leadership would take a stand similar to that taken by the presidential commission on which Ms. Donnelly served, which decided that if the needs of the military and equal opportunity came into conflict, the needs of the military had to come first. Will that principle be upheld today?

A report released by the Center for Military Readiness on 29 January outlined seven reasons why the new policy would result in a lowering of the standards for combat arms. During the press conference, Dempsey said, “Importantly, though, if we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high? With the direct combat exclusion provision in place, we never had to have that conversation.”

“The fantasy of the Amazon warrior myth is very strong in our culture,” Donnelly said. This tends to be particularly done in Hollywood movies, where women are doing amazing things on par with men. But Hollywood reality doesn’t change the realities of combat arms like the infantry, armor, artillery, and special operations forces. Worse, according to the 29 January report by the Center for Military Readiness, the risk of career penalties for not appeasing activists on the women in combat issue could effectively drive standards down.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission’s report stated, “To ensure that the diversity effort continues, demonstrated diversity leadership must be assessed throughout careers and made, in both DoD and the Senate, a criterion for nomination and confirmation to the 3- and 4-star ranks....Successful implementation of diversity initiatives requires a deliberate strategy that ties the new diversity vision to desired outcomes via policies and metrics....Military leaders at all levels can be held accountable for their performance in diversity management and rewarded for their efforts.”

“Male field commanders and combat trainers will know that the opposite, of course, also will be true. They will be rewarded for declaring ‘success’ for the women-in-land-combat social experiment and penalized for not doing so. There is no incentive for ensuring that elite training standards for fighting battalions remain high and uncompromised,” the CMR report stated.

Indeed, such standard lowering may have already affected some research into this. According to the CMR report, the Marine Corps carried out a Women in Service Restrictions Review (WISRR). The initial plan was for six tests. But by 2012, the test changed and “[t]he toughest ones were quietly taken out, and the remaining three were made less demanding. All male and female volunteers who participated went through the same training exercises, but they were not the same as originally planned.”

These lowered standards could place troops at risk. The weight of a Mk-19 automatic grenade launcher doesn’t change depending on the gender of the Soldier, Marine, Sailor, or Airman lifting it. A wounded service member with 70 pounds of body armor and gear will still need to be dragged to safety, no matter if his or her fellow troops are men or women.

There may be an argument that the standards need to be reviewed. Under the Army’s current height–weight standards, NFL linebackers Ray Lewis (13-time Pro Bowler who is 6'1", 240 pounds), Brian Urlacher (8-time Pro Bowler who is 6'4", 258 pounds), and Lance Briggs (7-time Pro Bowler who is 6'1", 244 pounds) would be in trouble at a minimum, if not bounced out of the service altogether. But changes in standards need to be reviewed carefully by Congress, with an eye toward the needs of the military.

Donnelly notes that a number of issues are already arising from the new policy that is being enacted by Secretary of Defense Panetta and General Dempsey. One of the big ones involves Selective Service registration, which is currently limited to men only. Donnelly noted that this is not going to be a partisan issue, and that soon, moms and dads will take notice of it. The time to get Congress involved is now.

The sad fact is, Congress has arguably fallen asleep on the job over the years. The Senate has not held a hearing on issues involving women in combat for 22 years. Unless the five minutes Ms. Donnelly spent discussing the issue in 1993 is counted, the House hasn’t held hearings in 34 years! Yet these major changes are being rammed through by the Obama administration. It is time for Congress to do its job, and act.