After 10 years of war, the work of women in the military is increasingly equal with that of men and yet, under a Defense Department policy, they are still technically barred from combat roles. That, some lawmakers, activists and service members fear, has meant their absence in the higher echelons of the force.
On Thursday, an overwhelmingly female group of lawmakers, activists and service members gathered on Capitol Hill as the Caucus on Women in the Military called for the removal of the policy, which states that women may not operate on the front lines of combat — “well forward on the battlefield” — or in places where they cannot be accommodated, long taken to mean environments like submarines.
The policy is based on a directive issued in 1994 by then-Defense Secretary Leslie Aspin. But times have changed, argued three congresswomen led by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan no longer have front lines.
A woman patrolling in Basra or helping Afghan children learn the alphabet as part of an engagement tactic is as much in harm’s way as anyone. Insurgencies can make every street and house part of the front line.
Women have been kept out of combat roles in part because of reservations about whether they would be able to perform as well as men physically — say, pull a dead or wounded 250-pound colleague in full body armor off the battlefield, or serve with Navy SEALs.
But because women are technically barred from combat, they are often denied recognition — from medals to benefits to psychiatric care -- of their work. This fall, noted Lory Manning of the Women’s Research & Education Institute, a veteran herself, the first female submarine officers will go on their first missions.
“It’s widely known,” added Manning, “that women in Iraq and Afghanistan have been attached to units rather than assigned to them, in many combat roles originally only done by men.” Pointing out that much has changed since women officially joined the armed services — as an all-female nursing corps in the early 1900s — she called for the bureaucratic fudges currently seeing women serving in harm’s way to be formalized.
Earlier this year, the congressionally appointed Military Leadership Diversity Commission produced a report calling for the exclusion of women from combat to end, with the aim of allowing women to be better represented at in senior ranks.
Currently, there is only one female four-star general — Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, who heads the Army’s supply arm — and despite her responsibility for getting everything, “from beans to bullets to Band-aids” to the battlefield, she is unlikely to make chief of staff because she has never held a combat role, Greg Jacob of the Service Women’s Action Network said Thursday.
In the campaign to end the ban on women in combat roles, female servicemembers are oftentimes not the loudest voices.
Jacob, who spent 10 years as a Marine, many of them as a trainer, sought to debunk some myths about women serving alongside men. Training female Marines made him realize that there was no reason all jobs should not be open to them, and that there was no evidence that they were more emotionally fragile or that they affected the performance of men.
“Men complain less [when working with women]” he said, “because they don’t want to appear weak in front of them.”