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Female Combatants: Time Is Running Out on Combat Ban

The recent announcement that the Army is opening Ranger School to women served as a further reminder to the nation that the combat ban imposed on female soldiers is on the verge of being lifted. Although Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the repeal of the combat ban early last year, women are not slated to take on frontline combatant roles until Jan. 1, 2016. Ranger School, an intensive precursor to becoming an Army Ranger, is considered one of the more emotionally and physically daunting challenges of any branch of the military. Three weeks of physical training is followed by three weeks in the mountains, where Ranger students are pushed to their absolute limits battling unforgiving terrain, sleep deprivation and extreme fatigue. The final training phase occurs in Florida swampland, entailing students learning boat operations and jungle combat. The graduation rate of Ranger School is below 50 percent.

“Not every woman makes a good soldier, but not every man makes a good soldier.”

Previously, female cultural advisers had served among Ranger regiments in Afghanistan and Iraq. For acceptance into the program for 2015, all interested female applicants must apply by Dec. 1, 2014. Pregnancy tests will be administered during processing, with pregnancy resulting in an automatic rejection. While women who complete the course will not currently be allowed into the Rangers (at least prior to 2016), the move is still being widely applauded. Successful completion of the program, which comes with the “Ranger Tab,” is expected to enable more upward mobility in climbing the chain of command. Furthermore, this allows female soldiers the same opportunity as their male counterparts to develop leadership skills and perspective essential to unit operations.

female combatants WSO

Capt. Kari Asai, an F-15E weapons officer assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron, RAF Lakenheath, England, stands in front of her aircraft following a training mission during Red Flag 13-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Women in the U.S. military have been flying in combat for 20 years. U.S. Air Force photo by Benjamin Newell

“Not every woman makes a good soldier, but not every man makes a good soldier. So women will compete,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif when the ban was lifted. “We’re not asking that standards be lowered. We’re saying that if they can be effective and they can be a good soldier or a good Marine in that particular operation, then give them a shot.”

Currently, women make up nearly 15 percent of this country’s 1.4 million active duty military personnel. Some 280,000 female soldiers have been sent to Afghanistan and Iraq to support Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn. Almost two hundred female military members have lost their lives while serving during these conflicts.

Momentum to reverse the prohibition of women in combat, originally established in 1994 by the Pentagon, has been building for years. Influenced by high rates of sexual abuse perpetrated against female service members and placement inequity, the 2012 decision to enable women greater access to some 14,000 military positions that had been previously open only to male service members paved the way for the Pentagon’s 2013 resolution to integrate qualified women into the occupational settings that they belong in. “The department’s goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender,” then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the time of the announcement.

 

Women in the Military: A Brief Overview

Since the Revolutionary War, women have been making invaluable contributions to the country’s war efforts. During the fight for sovereignty, women lined the battlefields as nurses, served in garrisons as seamstresses and cooks, and were subjected to the same horrid conditions as the men armed with rifles and dressed in blue cotton uniforms. Often forgotten by history are those who exemplified courage under fire by joining the fight. Molly Pitcher and Margaret Corbin are among the more well-known female Revolutionary War figures, remembered for their actions serving American artillery on the battlefield.

Unheralded heroes, women had historically stepped up during wartime, when a male dominated workforce was drafted into service. Women filled 20 percent of all World War I American manufacturing positions. Moreover, some 35,000 American women served in the military during World War I as nurses, radio electricians, and telephone operators.

World War II, The Korean War and the Vietnam conflict all continued to see growth in the number of female service members, with a multitude of nurses and auxiliary personnel serving. In 1972, the military opened up all occupational specialty roles to women with the exception of positions that required combat training or duty. In the years since then, the number of enlisted women serving has steadily grown, with the undeniable contributions of thousands. Denying women similar opportunities for military achievement has become an equal rights issue.

female combatants ban lifted

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta hands Army Lt. Col. Tamatha Patterson a document, which he just signed, lifting the ban on women in combat roles during a press conference at the Pentagon, Jan. 24, 2013. Panetta and Dempsey discussed the new directive from the Pentagon to open all military occupations to females, removing the almost 20 year ban of women serving in combat on the front lines. DoD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

 

Public Opinion

With the news of the ban being lifted, widespread opinions have circulated the web and throughout cable news programs; polls have unsurprisingly found a divergence in liberal and conservative judgment. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 74 percent of respondents reported that they would vote for female combatants while only 20 percent would vote against such a measure. A Huffpost/YouGov poll ascertained that support for the measure was roughly equivalent among men and women. Both of these surveys showed greater support for women in front line combat among younger Americans. The Huffpost/YouGov poll illustrated this with 53 percent of Americans aged 29 and younger in favor of female combatants compared to only 35 percent among Americans older than 65.

The argument against allowing women to fill combat roles is rooted in the notion that their presence will jeopardize the lives of American soldiers by disrupting unit cohesion, and because positions might be filled with unqualified candidates. Other common arguments against allowing women in combat include the notion that sexual assault (already a problem in the military) will increase, and an undesirable distraction will be established.

Common sense dictates that these arguments are based in fallacy. First, the military is not going to place women incapable of meeting the minimum physical standards onto the frontline. By the numbers, not only in terms of how many women already serve, but taking into account the greater than 50 percent female population of this country, denying qualified candidates a position weakens the military. By sheer population volume, it can be surmised that capable women are among the general populace and are thus being prevented the opportunity to aid the military effort in their best possible capacity. Our country is defined by its progressiveness; not lifting the ban would have been counter to the past six decades’ worth of civil rights advancements.