Women in combat: Fewer stars, but the bombs are just as deadly

November 27, 2012

Should women be fighting alongside men in Afghanistan? That’s hard for me to say, since I think it’s long past time the men, too, came home. And even as four women warriors filed suit against Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Tuesday, demanding that the Pentagon finally suspend a policy that keeps females out of most combat units — officially, anyway  — there’s still considerable disagreement on the policy among women in the military.


Caption: U.S. Marine Sergeant Savanna E. Malendoski from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Regiment peers through her rifle scope during a patrol in Garmser, Helmand Province. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES/ Adek Berry)

My biggest reservation is one voiced by Capt. Irene Overholts, a 27-year-old Barnard grad who just left the Air Force last week, after five years: ”Sexual assault is a huge problem in the military,” she told me, “and that problem is magnified when personnel are deployed for extended periods of time and have to deal with the stresses of a combat environment.”

That’s not an opinion, but a fact: As I’ve written before, the Pentagon itself estimates that there were 19,000 sexual assaults in our military last year – though only 3,192 of these were officially reported. In a typical year, fewer than 500 cases go to trial, and less than half of those result in convictions. Fully a third of those who are convicted are allowed to stay on in the service, too. Dishonorable non-discharge, I guess.

Yet the solution cannot be keeping women out of the sight of male soldiers; who would that punish? And what would it prove? I’m not sure how you say ‘irony’ in Pashto or Dari, but in a part of the world where women are kept hidden most of their lives — “protected” from education, independence and fresh air — what kind of sense does it make to limit the role of the American women who are there risking their lives in part to bring Afghanistan’s women new freedoms?

The four plaintiffs argue that they’ve been protected, all right — from promotions and recognition. That’s why only two American women have ever become four-star generals — a rank that’s hard to attain without combat experience that women are already getting, but are not getting credit for.

On a conference call, the plaintiffs and their lawyers argued that there’s actually a straight line between the policy excluding women from combat and the disrespect so often shown them. The official, written-in-a-handbook message that women can’t hold their own — or even their own gear — in combat “directly contributes to a culture that condones harassment,” said Service Women’s Action Network Executive Director Anu Bhagwati.

The same questions — about whether closer proximity wouldn’t lead to more crossed boundaries — were asked when ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was repealed less than a year ago, the plaintiffs said.

That’s not exactly analogous, because one of the concerns here is that men in combat zones are distracted by women not only as potential romantic partners but also as colleagues they feel the need to look out for. Overholts said that her husband, who’s still in the Air Force, told her that when he was in Afghanistan, “when the female member” of their unit “conveyed in their vehicle, she was a distraction” in that sense, because they all felt solicitous of her safety. That’s a point Rick Santorum made — and was pilloried for — during his presidential run.

There is something to it, however, whether we like it or not. (And to be honest, I do.) Yet does that mean women who are willing and able to serve in that way shouldn’t be able to? Surely not.

Plaintiff Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell said the policy is why she left active duty: It “limited my future.” Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who was injured when her Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device in Iraq five years ago, remarked that the IED didn’t know she wasn’t officially in combat. Marine Corps Lt. Colleen Farrell, who is leaving active duty this week, led an all-female team in Afghanistan that got to know and collected intelligence from local women. They “did without toilets and privacy,” just like the guys, while contributing something men couldn’t. Air Force Maj. Mary Hegar, a combat helicopter pilot who flew combat search and rescue missions in Afghanistan, was shot down three years ago while carrying three injured soldiers, and returned fire after sustaining shrapnel wounds.

A 24-year-old woman Marine currently stationed in Japan reminded me that most of us in civilian life have a very weak grasp of military reality:

“The cold sleet and snow most take for granted as an inconvenience while walking between their cars and their warm homes takes a much bigger toll on the troops who have been living in the elements without heat, electricity, or running water for days, weeks, or months. Unlike the comforts of normal, everyday life where we can take a nice warm shower after pushing ourselves past exhaustion during a hard workout, the only reprieve for a grunt who just gave his all to survive a firefight might be a cold “shelf-stable cinnamon pastry” he saved from one of his favorite MREs as he sits in a defensive position, in the same uniform he’s worn for the past week, without a shower because there are no showers outside the wire, fighting fatigue and the urge to sleep so that he can keep his buddies safe from a follow-on enemy attack.

“Sheer will and a big heart will get most anybody through any situation for a short duration with adrenaline and the motivation to survive,” she wrote in an email. But “sustained combat operations with full combat load is a different realm entirely.”

To the women who are doing that already, the least we owe is recognition of that reality.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Diana Reese | November 26, 2012