Women in Combat: An Opportunity, Not a Guarantee
“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….”
The weekly Pentagon press briefing held on Thursday, Jan. 24, became one of the most historic moments in the history of U. S. military personnel, when the 1994 Ground Combat Exemption Rule was struck down. With strokes of their pens, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, USA, ended forever the practice of denying women assignments in front-line combat units. And while the second and third order effects of this change have yet to be totally defined and understood, there is no question that the U.S. military has changed forever from a personnel point of view.
“Every time I visited the warzone, every time I’ve met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I’ve been impressed with the fact that everyone – men and women alike – everyone is committed to doing the job,” Panetta said. “They’re fighting and they’re dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality. 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 … Our purpose is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable service members, regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs. …”
This change in DoD personnel policy has a number of key implementation guidelines, which were laid out in the official media release later that day:
- Ensuring the success of our nation’s warfighting forces by preserving unit readiness, cohesion, and morale.
- Ensuring all service men and women are given the opportunity to succeed and are set up for success with viable career paths.
- Retaining the trust and confidence of the American people to defend this nation by promoting policies that maintain the best quality and most qualified people.
- Validating occupational performance standards, both physical and mental, for all military occupational specialties (MOS), specifically those that remain closed to women. Eligibility for training and development within designated occupational fields should consist of qualitative and quantifiable standards reflecting the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for each occupation. For occupational specialties open to women, the occupational performance standards must be gender-neutral as required by Public Law 103-160, Section 542 (1993).
- Ensuring that a sufficient cadre of midgrade/senior women enlisted and officers are assigned to commands at the point of introduction to ensure success in the long run. This may require an adjustment to recruiting efforts and assignment process.
However, strong public support for this personnel move by the Department of Defense (DoD) does not change the fact that when it comes to putting this decision into actual personnel policy, the devil truly will be in the details of the last two points mentioned above.
This will become particularly evident when women attempt entry in the selection and qualification courses for units and communities within America’s large special operations forces (SOF) community. In particular, the U.S. Army Ranger Course, along with the U.S. Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL (BUD/S) school, which already are brutal tests of mind and body with high dropout rates, are going to be tough for any woman to pass through successfully. Many male candidates take a year or more of physical conditioning and personal training before they attempt such a rigorous selection process, and dropout rates of over 50 percent are always expected. The reasons are quite simple: the Ranger and SEAL MOSs are that tough to earn, and the missions they conduct that arduous.
Another consideration will have to do with where women in particular MOS specialties may have to operate once they earn their qualification. U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) and U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) personnel regularly deploy downrange into regions where cultural sensitivities regarding women may prove to be an operational limitation for U.S. forces. Another problem will be adjusting what have been traditionally “male only” specialized courses, like Survival Escape Resistance Evasion (SERE) courses to reflect the realities of greater numbers of female personnel being assigned to more “at risk” roles and missions in the future.
This is why DoD has built into the transition process for this new personnel policy a chance for the services and its various communities to comment on the effects of adding women into previously restricted MOS specialties. This includes an opportunity for individual communities to request an exclusion from the new policy should it be felt that no practical means of integrating women into a particular MOS exists at this time. Nevertheless, a page has been turned on DoD personnel policy, and does not look likely to be overturned. How the transition goes over the next several years, and how successful it will be, will depend on the approach that military leadership takes, and how closely they follow the intent laid down by Panetta.
“When I look at my grandsons and my granddaughters – you know, I’ve got six grandchildren, three grandsons and three granddaughters – I want each of them to have the same chance to succeed at whatever they want to do,” Panetta said. “In life, as we all know, there are no guarantees of success. Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.”