Women in Combat – Why We Must Accept What Comes Next

Last week Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that starting in January all combat military positions will be open to women. This change is just another in a long list of changes the military has seen in the past few decades. In the 1990’s it was news when women were allowed to serve as fighter pilots and on aircraft carriers. In 2010, women were put through trials to be allowed to serve onboard formally all male submarines. Just this year, the first two women graduated from Army Ranger School.

The feminist in me wanted to stand up and cheer when I heard the news. I was lucky enough to grow up with a father who taught me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. At age four, that meant I wanted to be the bread stacker in the grocery store. At age ten, I was convinced I’d grow up to be a world famous euphonium player in a grand orchestra. In college I had his support when I wanted to write for the school newspaper sports section despite having very little knowledge of athletic events. And at 28 he stood proudly at my boot camp graduation, supporting my decision to serve.  Never was I told that I couldn’t do something because I was a female. Because of that I have a belief that women can do anything they put their minds to do.

However, that doesn’t mean I think women should do everything. I’ve struggled with my opinion on feminism in this current area. This issue of women being equal to men and able to perform on elite military teams has pushed me to really look at what I believe and I know it isn’t going to be popular opinion. There is a difference between women and men. That’s not a false statement, it’s biology. Study after study has been done to discuss the difference between the sexes. From physical strength to emotional reactions, we are just designed differently. And there is nothing wrong with that! By trying to be men I feel that sometimes we miss out on what it means to be a woman and that’s a problem.  Just because men are doing it doesn’t mean we need to do so as well.

Looking specifically at the issue of women in combat I see our differences as a big problem. Already the standards set for women are different than those of our male counterparts. At my annual PRT, due to my age and my gender I had to do a grand total of 17 pushup’s to pass. If I was a male Sailor, same age, I would be required to do 41. That’s a 24 pushup difference. Just because I’m female. I’m allowed to weigh more, run slower, and do fewer curl ups as well. And it’s not just the Navy with these gaps. Let’s look at the Marines. Male Marines are required to hit a set number of pull-ups on their semi-annual PFT. Female Marines don’t even have to participate in the event. They have a separate event, the flexed-arm hang, to accommodate for the differences between genders.

I can’t help but be curious to see how the standards for those in the elite forces will have to be adapted to accommodate the women who want to be a part of those forces. I know people will say that standards won’t be changed. In fact, I watched a statement from the Commander and Command Senior Enlisted Leader of the US Special Operations Command (here) where they spoke specifically on this problem. CSM Thetford stated that the standards that are currently in place have been tried and tested to give the best results needed to keep the elite service members prepared for the tasks they face. He also said that women voiced their opinion that any deviation from these standards would undermine the credibility of the women who want to be considered as a potential candidate for a place in these forces. What happens when the women who want these positions still can’t live up to the requirements?

I do think that there are very few women who will be able to do that. But look at the rate of males that can’t start and graduate from these programs. If that many men, men who are supposed to be the biggest and baddest, can’t complete the training required to prepare them physically and mentally for the challenges they will face, how many women are going to be able to pass the courses with the exact same standards?

I took the topic to a message board filled with enlisted female Sailors. The group ranges from fresh out of boot camp girls to Fleet Master Chiefs. We discuss everything from work related issues to standards and regulations set in place for women to personal concerns. It’s a wonderful group of women whose main focus is to mentor and built each other up to succeed. The range of opinions on women in elite forces even among women in the service is as varied as it is amongst civilians with no experience, military spouses who have fears about it, and men who serve in these groups. Some believe that women can and should hold any position that is open to men. Some believe that women just aren’t built to do these jobs. Some think that there are a select few women who will be able to achieve these goals and those women should be allowed to try. Others wonder, while it’s wonderful to watch our peers break the glass ceiling, what is going to be the fall out for those who were ok with it being off limits to us?

I was also able to talk to Former 75th Ranger and Air Force Pararescuman Wil Willis. This is a man who kicked my rear in the gym to get me into shape for boot camp because he knew that it was something I wanted and knew that with the right mentors, I could achieve the goals the Navy was setting for me. He didn’t pull punches with me then nor did he do so in my interview with him this week:

Q: When the announcement came out last week that all military jobs will now be open to women what was your first reaction?

A: “’The boys are gonna love this shit!’ That was my first thought and I thought it with a smile on my face. In reality I’m disheartened. I understand the desire to achieve goals that seem beyond the reach of even most men, but to what end and what is the true price that’s paid? Every single candidate must pass the selection courses for each special operations career field whether it’s BUDS to be a SEAL, INDOC to become a Pararescueman, or RASP to become a Ranger. We won’t be seeing a giant influx of candidates who can achieve even the minimum physical standards to enter one of the selection courses let alone endure the entire program; I don’t give a shit how much crossfit they do.”

Q: And for those who use the two women who graduated from Ranger School this year as an example of women breaking into the elite forces, how does that compare to this?

A: “Ranger School is just that; a school. At the end of which, if you pass, you are awarded the Ranger Qualification Badge. The only Rangers in the Army are assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment. Being awarded the Ranger Tab is not the same as serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Not by a damn sight. Period. No discussion to be had.”

Q: As a former member of a spec ops team, do you believe that the addition of women to these teams will hinder the missions that service members on sent on?

A: “I do not believe that the addition of women to a special ops team would hinder the mission. The strong sense of duty and excellence in our special operations teams would never allow it. The mission will be completed, whatever the objective. However, I absolutely believe that the addition of women to special operations units will negatively affect the overall performance of the team. It’s the tempo and grind of day-to-day operations that chews on operators. Eventually everyone has to work with or around injuries. That’s why the minimum standard exists. Anyone can have a bad day. But if your maximum performance and effort achieves only the minimum standard on a consistent basis, then you’re in the wrong job. How many recycles in Ranger School for our female Rangers? ‘Nuff said.”

Q: Many of the conversations being had about this topic want to say that women aren’t going to be held to the same standards as their male counterparts in order to be accepted into these positions. Do you think they are going to alter the standards to make sure women are integrated or to you think that what USSOCOM Commander, General Joseph Votel had to say in his statement is more accurate? Those standards have been proven to be effective and the women who want to enter these positions do not want exceptions made because it will make them look weak if they have their own set of standards.

A: “I will not disparage the spirit and drive of any woman that wants to pursue a special operations job. I am not so ignorant that I can’t recognize the warrior spirit in another human being; it is the innate desire to protect and serve your community and country. That spirit is asexual. So when we talk about standards being lowered any questions we have should be directed toward the process, not the individuals.

And that process is apparently an enigma, wrapped in a cover-up, and draped in a shroud of military politics that are being heavily influenced by our government. I personally think the current administration has been taking some hard hits on everything from Bengazi to Immigration, and they’re looking for a win. They need a win and they’ll take it wherever and however they can get it.”

Q: Another argument out there is that men will be looking out for their female teammates in a different way than they do the other men they serve with. Being more protective and therefore vulnerable to injury or putting themselves in the line of fire to protect a woman just because they are female. Do you think that is an accurate statement or do you think that once women are put in these positions they will become just another part of the team the same way as a male would? What complications would you foresee in the integration of women into spec ops teams? Do you think the biggest problem will be men accepting women as their teammates?

A: “The military is a tool used by the government to enforce foreign policy. That tool is comprised of people. Did anyone ever think to ask the men that serve in these units how having a female soldier affects not only the performance of the team, but the camaraderie that absolutely must exist within an effective fighting unit?

Even if fifty percent of the warriors in those units thought a female soldier, sailor, or airman could adequately perform their assigned duties as effectively as themselves, that’s only fifty percent. That division creates not only disharmony, but also resentment and contempt. Those are sentiments best left to our enemies.”

Q: How would you have felt if a woman had been placed within your units while you were in the service?

A: “I took an oath.” 

How fitting a statement. All of us who serve took an oath to obey the orders of those appointed over us and now that means watching women step into shoes they have never filled before. I’m sure there were concerns about the first women serving on aircraft carriers and when women began flying in combat missions. I know I’m not alone in my concerns and with the questions I have about how the integration is going to be accomplished. Looks like I’ll be keeping my eye on the Military Times a bit more in 2016 as updates are released.

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