Why Army women are demanding the right to fight — and die — in combat

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 28, 2012

What Col. Ellen Haring is proposing would eventually change the way America mourns on Memorial Day.

“And that’s painful, yeah,” she said in between cutting green beans and heating up the grill for a Memorial Day barbecue at her Northern Virginia home.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“But women are already dying,” she said. “The public may not realize it, but over 1,000 women have been killed or injured” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Haring, 50, is one of two Army Reserve officers who filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit last week against the Defense Department and the Army for barring women from certain combat units and other jobs solely on the basis of their gender. The suit amounts to a demand that women be given better odds at dying in combat, an interesting way to kick off the Memorial Day weekend.

Haring, a mother of three who has spent 28 years in the Army and Reserve, would have everything to lose if she were allowed to serve on the front lines. But she argues that it’s only fair that women get to choose whether to go into combat, no matter what their other roles in life are. Protecting women from combat is the same as saying men are expendable. And women are willing to accept greater risks to reap the greater opportunities that come with those risks, she said.

In the past 10 years, about 283,000 women have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 800 have been injured and 139 have been killed, according to an April report by the Congressional Research Service.

There are about 250,000 jobs in the U.S. military that remain closed to women. Haring encountered those locked doors as soon as she graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1984.

“I couldn’t go into Ranger School,” she said. “I wanted to test myself, I was all gung-ho Army, but I couldn’t do that.”

Instead, she became a platoon leader, commander, executive officer and bridge commander. She is now a joint concept officer for the Joint and Coalition Warfighting Center in Suffolk, Va.

Her options, her lawsuit declares, “were limited to support positions with no possibility to compete within the combat arms.”

Funny thing is, though women such as Haring don’t get to go to the fabled Ranger School and train with the elite, they are nevertheless fighting and dying alongside the Rangers. And that’s one of the key points in the lawsuit.

Take the story of 1st Lt. Ashley White, a 24-year-old from Ohio. She was embedded with an Army Ranger unit in Kandahar province in Afghanistan when she and two Rangers were killed by a roadside bomb, Haring told me.

White was with the unit because she could do things — such as frisk women in burqas — that men couldn’t. “Women like her do this all the time,” Haring explained. The Army is going around the no-combat rule by attaching women to these units.

It’s a bogus way to do it. “They go into these units with a lack of training, and they are at greater risk without that training,” Haring said.

So, yes, women are unofficially in combat, through the back door and without the training they need. That’s one of Haring’s biggest concerns.

“I’ve also been reading some studies on group intelligence,” she said. And in all the studies, a group of mixed genders always showed superior intelligence to single-sex groups.

Women add a different perspective, a different way of thinking and analyzing.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into a meeting and I’m the only woman in the room,” Haring said. And the discussions in those meetings usually change a little when her point of view is offered.

But what about size? “They always say: ‘But can you carry a 200-pound injured man?’ ” Haring said.

“What about Audie Murphy, then?” she asks. The man known as America’s most decorated solider in World War II, who graced the cover of Life magazine and later starred in war movies, “was just a slight, 140-pound man.”

Her husband, retired Army Col. Brandon Denecke, seconds that. “He always tells me, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog that matters,” she said.

When she embarked on this lawsuit, which she filed jointly with Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin, she was a little worried about what her husband would think.

“He was so supportive,” she said. And when she filed it, she also got notes of support from other men she has served with.

They see what’s happening, and they know the danger they are putting women in without proper training.

On Sunday, Haring had 16 people over for a barbecue. She handled the preparations and a reporter’s questions with military precision.

On Monday, she said, she wasn’t sure whether she’d visit Arlington National Cemetery, a place she goes more than she’d like.

“I find it very, very emotional. Section 60,” she said, referring to the cemetery section where the newly dead are buried. When she goes to Arlington or to watch Rolling Thunder or to hear Memorial Day speeches, she always cries.

“I look around, and the men are crying, too,” she reminds me.

And if her lawsuit is successful, “of course, we’ll be killed in greater numbers,” and there will be more tears.

But it is the painful and real price of true equality.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad or e-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com. To read my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Local