One of the worst kept secrets in the Defense Department came to light Thursday with the decision by Pentagon chief Leon Panetta to lift the ban on women serving in combat. It’s the right time and the right move.
This ends a 1994 rule put forth by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that prohibited women from being assigned to units below the brigade level, which is about 3,500 troops. A brigade is then split into battalions of about 800 soldiers, which are often placed closer to enemy contact stations.
The different services have until January 2016 to develop plans for allowing women to seek combat positions, but earlier reports suggested some special forces operations like the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force may be granted exclusions or at least will take more time to clear.
Nearly a year ago, the Pentagon opened up about 14,500 combat positions to women mostly in the Army. This latest move could open more than 230,000 jobs, possibly even into infantry units of the Army and Marines.
Women already have been serving as medics, military police and intelligence officers “attached” but not assigned to units on the front line. By not being formally assigned, women miss out on combat “credits” often considered important for advancement.
There have been critics of such a change questioning whether women have the necessary strength and stamina, or if even their presence would hurt cohesion.
But the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the concept of a conventional battlefield is long gone, with combat operations springing up in any location, making it impossible to keep women clear of combat. Nearly 300,000 women have already been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to neighboring nations in support of the wars. More than 130 women have been killed and more than 800 have been wounded.
There have been cases of women acting heroically in helicopter support or helping defend positions under attack while serving as medics, such as Pfc. Monica Brown, who received a Silver Star for bravery – and then was pulled out of the combat zone because of Army restrictions.
Tammy Duckworth, now a U.S. representative from Illinois, was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who lost both legs and part of the use of her right arm when her craft was hit by an RPG. She was awarded the Purple Heart.
Proponents of allowing more women in combat roles will afford them the opportunity for leadership, will train them better for action they already are seeing and use them more effectively in roles unsuited for men. One such program has women serving in support roles such as talking or frisking burka-clad women.
Opening up these positions isn’t that difficult, but the requirements might be. They would need to pass a test to qualify and combat training is more rigorous that just basic training but that’s expected of all regardless of gender.
Then, just as any applicant for combat, they will need to prove themselves before being accepted, and perform up to expectation when in their units. There are many applicants for the Navy SEALs, for instance, who were scrubbed but they at least were given the chance.
Everyone who has the qualifications and desire should have the chance to prove they have what it takes.