Women in combat: ‘First the gays. Now the broads.’

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 24, 2013

More than 1,000 American women have been injured or killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 12 years. At long last, the government is giving them official permission to do so.

The decision by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to lift the ban on women serving in combat roles is the second historic, game-changing shift within the U.S. military in little more than a year. It follows on the heels of the decision to let homosexuals serve their country openly.

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

“First the gays, and now the broads,” exulted one friend of mine, a former Navy officer, on her Facebook feed. “The military is going to hell in a handbasket, and I couldn’t be happier.”

What this means is that about 250,000 combat jobs that women were officially banned from are now open. And yes, it means that more women will be dying.

The fight for an equal right to serve on the front lines has been a supremely righteous struggle. This was not a campaign for the corner office, the country club membership or the keys to the executive washroom. This was an argument to serve with equal risk and to acknowledge that if there is a draft, our moms, daughters, sisters and wives will likely be told to go, too.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the end of a ban on women in combat roles. (The Washington Post)

And it underscores the idea that a man is no more expendable than a woman.

To understand why women in the military are cheering this move is to comprehend the absolute hypocrisy military women have faced for years.

Army Reserve Col. Ellen Haring, one of the women who filed a lawsuit last spring to open combat jobs to women, was elated and shocked Wednesday.

“We were getting ready for a long, drawn-out legal fight; this caught me totally by surprise,” said Haring, who lives in Northern Virginia but talked to me from the Army War College outside of Harrisburg where she works.

Haring made it clear to me that the ban wasn’t about protecting sacred XX creatures, givers of life. Her lawsuit amounted to a demand that women be given better odds at surviving combat situations, which they get into quite frequently.

According to a report last April by the Congressional Research Service, about 283,000 women have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 800 have been injured and 139 have been killed.

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

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, when we talked about her lawsuit on Memorial Day last spring.

And there were women in supply lines, drivers, techs — all killed in combat.

What made Haring furious was that the Army was going around the no-combat rule by attaching women to these units but not giving them the same combat training that men get.

“I haven’t talked about this before, but I have a daughter serving, she’s a lieutenant in the Army,” Haring said. “So I did this for my daughter, for my granddaughter, or all the other young women who will now have opportunities I didn’t have.”

Haring is a West Point graduate who longed to go through Army Ranger training but never had the option.

The change in women’s roles is particularly felt in Washington, where high-ranking women in and around the Pentagon often hit the so-called “brass ceiling” because they never had the chance to earn the combat creds that their male counterparts had.

“But it also reverberates throughout our culture, because if you don’t treat women equally, we won’t be valued equally.”

With the change, the Defense Department eliminated “the last place the government was able to formally discriminate against women,” Haring said.

She had been helping plan a symposium for next week on pushing for women in combat roles, but instead, the focus will be on implementation. The symposium will hear from other women who serve on the front lines from around the world, like a Norwegian infantry officer who was among the very first women to take a job in combat.

And anyone who dares still to suggest — or even think — that women aren’t tough enough for the job is completely delusional.

I was scared to death when I was late for an interview with now retired Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a surgeon, pilot, wife and mother.

Cornum was sexually abused when she was taken prisoner during the Persian Gulf War. She was shot and captured after her helicopter was gunned down.

Her book, “She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story,” recounts how she survived all that and describes how the men she was with all piled on top of her to save her from gunfire, pinning her to the helicopter floor and thus ensuring she’d get shot.

Any American soldier would be lucky to have her close by in combat. (And she was pretty nice about me being late, too.)

But beyond the practical aspect of Panetta’s decision, acknowledging that which has already happened (See: “don’t ask, don’t tell”), there is the symbolic, final cracking of one of the world’s largest glass ceilings and one of the last male bastions. Well, sanctioned ones, at least.

It turns out, the greatest enemy that women face in the military is from within. The nation’s three military academies reported in December record numbers of sexual assaults. Air Force officials this week likened the sexual assaults within their ranks to a “cancer.”

And if anyone dare say that this increase is simply because there are now more women serving alongside the men, then we have much bigger problems than we ever imagined.

But then again, maybe that will also change once women get that combat training.

To read earlier columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. Read earlier columns go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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