Women’s Path to Ground Combat Strewn With Obstacles

The path to the front combat lines for women in the U.S. military may be long and complicated by demands from Army infantry to the Marines to the Special Operations Forces that killed Osama bin Laden.

Even as the Pentagon announced it was lifting a ban on women serving in ground-combat units, defense officials said yesterday the plan may take as long as three years to complete and will require a methodical review of the physical standards needed for each combat job and whether some should remain closed to women.

Lawmakers and women’s advocates said they will keep a watchful eye on the Defense Department in coming months as it tries to create a more gender-neutral military for the 21st century.

“We want to make sure there’s not foot-dragging going on in making this change,” said Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit late last year on behalf of four military women who sought ground-combat positions. “Our clients are evidence that women are being harmed by these policies now.”

While women have been a permanent part of the military services rather than in separate auxiliaries since a 1948 act of Congress, they have long been excluded from the infantry, artillery and other ground-combat jobs. Yet after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan that sent more than 280,000 female troops into war zones, Pentagon leaders and women who served said gender discrimination no longer makes sense.

‘Bleeding, Dying’

“Women have been bleeding, dying and serving in combat, and that needs to be recognized,” Representative Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and an Iraq war veteran, said yesterday in an interview.

“The other part of this is that women will now be able to move up into some of these positions and it will allow them to get promoted to the highest rank of the military,” said Duckworth, who lost both her legs in 2004 when the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. “That’s really difficult to do if you don’t have time in a combat-arms unit under your belt.”

The recognition and the advancement may not come easily. Defense officials said they will need time to review the standards required for all combat positions to determine how best to judge qualified men and women and whether some jobs should continue to be restricted to men.

“We expect to be challenged just like any fire department or police department in any big city” in which standards for duty are contested, said General Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Even so, Cone said, “Women do not want standards changed for them. If the standard is in fact valid, they want to meet that standard.”

Carrying 100 Pounds

Defense officials said they won’t lower any standards for the purpose of allowing women to participate.

Under current standards, qualifying as an Army combat infantryman requires being able to frequently carry 100 pounds (45 kilograms) over a distance of 15 feet (4.6 meters) as part of a two-person team, according to a job description from the service. An elite Green Beret weapons specialist must lift 200 pounds as part of a two-person team and throw one-pound objects as far as 40 meters.

An early, limited test suggested some tough trials ahead. In preparing for the possibility of integrated ground combat, the Marine Corps let two women take an infantry officers course at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia last year. One applicant failed on the first day, and the second had to drop out later because of stress fractures, according to the Defense Department.

Requesting Exemptions

“Not everyone is going to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday before signing an order lifting the combat ban, based on a unanimous recommendation from the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ending the ban will open as many as 237,000 positions to women by January 2016, the date set for final implementation. The military services have been directed to have plans completed by May 15.

The military branches can request exemptions to continue barring women from certain specialties, with the defense secretary deciding.

Lawmakers made clear yesterday that the military may be pulled from both ends in trying to come up with a fair process.

“I would hope the military does not try to come up with arbitrarily high physical standards to say this is what you need for the job in order to keep women out,” Duckworth said. “I don’t think they’ll do that. I trust in the professionalism of our military.”

Potential Legislation

Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he is “concerned about the potential impacts of completely ending” the ban on women from ground combat.

“If necessary, we will be able to introduce legislation to stop any changes we believe to be detrimental to our fighting forces and their capabilities,” he said in a statement. “I suspect there will be cases where legislation becomes necessary.”

Representative Duncan Hunter of California, a former Marine who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon will have to explain how allowing women in ground combat will improve combat effectiveness.

“There’s a difference between incidental combat and the specific combat missions of our advanced and elite ground operators,” Hunter, a Republican, said in a statement.

‘Real Momentum’

The policy change is likely to have the most impact on the Army and Marine Corps. While 99 percent of all Air Force jobs already are open to women, that drops to about 78 percent in the Army. About 123,000 infantry, armor and field artillery Army positions remain closed.

“There may be some road bumps, but there is real momentum,” said Laura Browder, a professor of American studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia who has studied women in the military. “The military can’t really function if it denies some of its most talented personnel to do what they’ve been trained to do: to be soldiers.”

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that he recognized the need for change on a 2003 trip to Baghdad as commander of the 1st Armored Division.

After climbing into an armored Humvee, Dempsey said he slapped the turret-gunner on the leg and asked, “Who are you?” She said her name was Amanda.

Turret Gunner

“So -- female turret-gunner protecting division commander,” Dempsey said at a Pentagon news conference. “And it’s from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it.”

Women, who make up about 15 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel, have increasingly been exposed to combat as the traditional front lines of battle blur in an age of terrorism and unconventional warfare. Women also fly combat aircraft, including helicopters and carrier-based Navy fighters, and the Navy has begun assigning women to duty on submarines.

In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 152 women have died, out of more than 6,600 U.S. fatalities, and more than 860 women have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.

“Women are already on the ground doing the tough work,” said former Navy Lieutenant Carey Lohrenz, one of the first women assigned to fly Navy combat jets in the early 1990s. “They’re already there. This is for the most part an administrative fix.”

Hagel Support

The new policy will change a 1994 rule that barred women from being assigned to ground-combat units below the brigade level. A brigade typically has several thousand troops, and women have been restricted to serving in support roles for ground-combat forces.

Panetta’s move in rescinding the ban was one of his final initiatives before his planned retirement. Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Pentagon in his second term, may face questions about the policy change at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services panel. Hagel supports the new policy, according to a defense official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity yesterday.

Panetta is the second Pentagon chief in recent years to push a major social policy change as he leaves office. His predecessor, Robert Gates, ended the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had prevented openly gay troops from serving.

By law, the Defense Department must submit a report to Congress justifying the change. The policy must be reviewed for 30 days before it can take effect.

Israel’s Military

Women have long served alongside men in Israel, whose universal conscription laws gives them the choice of military duty or some form of national service. About 1,500 Israeli women are drafted annually into combat units, according to the army’s website. Last September, a female army sniper serving in a co-ed patrol unit shot dead an armed infiltrator along Israel’s border with Egypt.

Cone, the Army training commander, said he visited Israel last summer to learn how the Israeli military has integrated women into its combat forces.

“They have a level of female participation that is probably greater than what we are going to have,” he said. Still, the lesson he said he learned was that “gender truly does not make a difference.”

In recognizing the difficulties that lie ahead, Panetta likened the push toward gender equality with the ending of racial segregation in the military by President Harry S Truman in 1948 and the elimination under Obama of the policy barring openly gay troops from serving.

Such changes “have not come easy,” Panetta said. “They’ve required a lot of sacrifice, a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of leadership. And I think that’ll be the case here.”

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