It was January 24th, just a few weeks ago, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced he was lifting the ban on women serving in combat.
While many women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan argue they've been in combat for years, they welcomed the news as yet another step in getting rid of gender-based barriers in the military.
But that announcement didn't automatically open up all roles to women. Some units, for example the Navy SEALS, can apply for an exemption and have until 2016 to decide whether or not they want to include women.
“Women in Combat: The Changing Roles of Women in the Military” was the online forum sponsored by the Center on National Policy in Washington D.C.
It featured Kayla Williams, a sergeant and Arabic linguist with 101st Airborne, who served almost a year in Iraq. She went on foot patrols with the infantry, yet wasn’t even given the protective plates for her flack vest because as a woman she was not considered in combat.
More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan where there are no more traditional battle lines and everyone is exposed to combat conditions.
“I know I don’t have the right haircut, but I also went to war,” Williams explained when asked by an audience member if women had a harder time transitioning to civilian life. “Feeling invisible, having people ask me if I was allowed to carry a gun because I’m just a girl, having other people ask me if I was in the infantry when that is still not authorized. It really made it harder for me to transition back into a society that had no conception what so ever of what I’ve been through.”
Williams wrote a book titled: Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. It details her experiences and has armed her to take on the often heard speculation on why women should NOT serve in combat.
First there’s the worry that women won’t have to meet current standards.
“Senior leaders have said quite clearly that standards will not be lowered the services can request to keep jobs or units closed,” Williams said.
Yet, women in the military currently have different Physical Training (PT) standards than men. Williams said that is point of resentment with some men. So, she believes women’s PT standards should be re-evaluated.
Another reason often given for keeping women from combat roles is the problem of widespread reports of military sexual assault.
“It’s also important that we stop framing this as women in the military problem,” Williams said. “Roughly similar numbers of men and women in the military report having experienced Military Sexual Trauma to VA. Not letting women into the infantry does not mean that rape will not happen.”
She agrees with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that lifting the ban of women in combat jobs will reduce sexual assaults over time because it will build mutual respect.
Williams then quickly ticked off a list of common arguments against lifting the ban:
Women don’t have the physical endurance: “Some women do, some men do not.”
The American people cannot stand seeing women come home in body bags: “That’s just not been the case.”
What about the hygiene issue: “Baby wipes work on both genders. There are even charmingly titled Female Urinary Devices or FUDs that let women pee standing up or into a bottle during long convoys that are already available as part of the military supply chain. And women can use hormonal birth control to regulate or eliminate their periods during deployment. It’s just not that hard.
Women will harm unit cohesion: “That’s a canard. Studies have clearly shown that military unit cohesion comes from task cohesion, successfully accomplishing missions together rather than social cohesion or being the same.”
There’s always the question of sex when women and men serve together: “What about sex? Look, I work in an office with men and we somehow manage to get our jobs done without having sex on the hallway floor.”
Pregnancy does make women un-deployable, but she said women are no more of a drain on unit readiness because men miss more time overall due to disciplinary actions, drugs, alcohol and other reasons.
Williams said issues like privacy have already been successfully resolved in the past 10 years because women have been serving in combat, being injured and killed. They’ve just not gotten credit for it.
You can view the hour and 15 minute Center for National Policy forum here featuring Williams and Mike Breen, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and executive director of the Truman CNP.