Veterans Talk About Women in Combat

In 2013 women became eligible for the same combat opportunities as men in the armed services. President Obama has advocated vigorously for women in combat, and the goal is for the Armed Services to fully integrate women into all spheres by January 1, 2016.

Recently the Veterans Office and Women's Center at Georgetown University co-sponsored a panel discussion on women in combat, which I had the honor to moderate. The panelists were Karen Courington, a former Air Force pilot who currently serves as an adviser to Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia on national security issues; Sasha-Maria Martin, a former Army staff sergeant and member of the military police corps, who is completing graduate studies at Georgetown in global politics and security studies; Samantha Dugan, a Naval aviator who became the first Aviation Lead for the Navy's Office of Women's Policy; and Robert Egnell, a visiting professor in the Georgetown University Security Studies program and a captain in the Swedish Army reserves.

Unlike last year's panelists, who expressed concern that the new directive would lead to lowering standards to accommodate women, this year's group opined that the very notion of "combat" and "non-combat" is antiquated. They pointed out that women already serve in combat, either because they are attached to combat units or simply find themselves in combat situations. Furthermore, the tests that determine standards are flawed, they argued. "The very notion of standards is gender-biased," remarked Martin. "The tests prioritize upper body strength and endurance, but they have little to do with the tasks combat soldiers actually have to perform." The panelists agreed that the military needs to devise new tests that measure skills that soldiers will in fact need. In Sweden the debate is different, according to Egnell, as women are formally integrated into the military and promoted according to gender neutral physical standards. The challenge in Sweden is that women make up only 5 percent of the military, as compared to 14.6 percent in the U.S.

"The absence of female military in combat zones can slow the progress of an operation," argued Martin. She noted that our soldiers are sometimes hampered in Middle Eastern countries by prohibitions on speaking to Muslim women. Often they must call in female State Department representatives for help. "How much more efficient it would be if we had women soldiers to take care of this?" said Martin.

One argument voiced by opponents of full integration is that women's physiology makes them ill equipped for combat roles. The inconvenience of menstruation, for example, might make it difficult for women to perform optimally in combat. However, the panelists uniformly ridiculed this notion. "Having your period is not worse than having diarrhea is for a guy," said Martin.

Several panelists and audience members pointed out that today medication that prevents the cycle eliminates this problem. Dugan added that modern technology makes it possible for female pilots to deal with normal bodily functions without having to leave the cockpit.

With regard to the special challenges facing military women who are mothers, the panelists were equally dismissive. "Of course, it's hard for women to leave their children," said Dugan, "but it's equally hard for men. They love their children, too. To suggest otherwise is demeaning to men." She pointed out that for aviators the issue is somewhat complicated in the case of pregnancy, because women pilots are allowed to fly only during the second trimester. Although the military offers maternity leave, it does not allow paternity leave -- something all the panelists agreed will have to change.

In spite of the new openness toward females in non-traditional military roles, some women complain of a "macho environment" that makes them uncomfortable. Although the Air Force is the branch of the service with the largest percentage of women (19.1 percent), aviation is often cited as a domain that fosters a macho dynamic. Dugan and Courington agreed that whether or not a female pilot fits in with colleagues depends largely on her personality. She needs to be a team player and still set limits. In other areas of the military, attitudes toward women vary depending on their jobs. The more specialized the field, the more their colleagues value them. Still, all the panelists knew of cases in which highly trained women were passed over for assignments for which they were qualified.

The panelists downplayed the issue of sexual tension in units in which men and women work together in close quarters. "Give the men some credit," said Martin. "If a soldier doesn't have the discipline to work side by side with a woman, he probably has other problems as well."

Courington noted that whether or not a woman has combat experience, the military prepares her for leadership positions after she transitions. "You learn time management, you make check lists, you become task oriented," she said. "You learn to work with people, and you also learn that you're replaceable, because you're always preparing to move to a new position and teaching someone else your job." These skills makes both female and male veterans highly marketable.

In spite of the highly optimistic views of the panelists, opposition to women serving in infantry, reconnaissance, and special operations units has been fierce in some quarters. For example, Marine Corps leaders have said that although they will assign more women to combat units in the future, they are prepared to seek exceptions to the Defense Department Directive. It is clear that the U.S. has produced highly competent, well trained female soldiers, but there are still hurdles to overcome.