During my service in Iraq as a Marine officer, I, like many other military women, found myself fighting on the front lines of America’s wars — yet was unacknowledged for doing so. Women are dying in combat, but Congress still officially bans us from serving in combat units that engage the enemy with deliberate, offensive action.
This antiquated policy may be seeing its final days. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) has prepared an amendment to the defense budget bill that would end the the ban. On Memorial Day weekend, let’s also end some revered stereotypes purporting to explain why women couldn’t possibly succeed in combat.
A feature from The Post’s Outlook section that dismantles myths, clarifies common misconceptions and makes you think again about what you thought you already knew.
1. Women are too emotionally fragile for combat.
This myth is based on cultural stereotypes and Hollywood hype. There is no concrete evidence to suggest that women are any more susceptible to combat stress than their male counterparts.
Women in the Marine Corps, for example, go through training identical to what men get. While boot camp is segregated by gender, subsequent training is integrated, and women train for combat the same way as men. Gender-integrated units don’t exclude women from any activity. Women shoot, exercise, plan battles and conduct military maneuvers the same way as the men do. They become mentally conditioned the same way as their male counterparts and develop the same combat mind-set. Several studies, including one in 2009 by the Defense Department’s Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, have found that gender integration in noncombat units has no effect on overall unit cohesion.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an unfortunate consequence of war, especially for those who have served multiple deployments — and sadly, no gender is immune to it.
2. Women are too physically weak for the battlefield.
While it is indisputable that the average man has more upper-body strength than the average woman, women have different physical abilities that enable them to offer unique capabilities in combat.
Distance running is one such arena, and it’s relevant because combat can be as much about physical endurance (sustaining activity over time) as physical strength. According to a study analyzing track-and-field records and published in the journal Nature in 1992, the gaps between male and female performance narrow as the distance is extended, and some studies show that at ultramarathon distances (100 miles or more), women with equal training as their male counterparts outperform men. Researchers theorize that women’s ability to metabolize fat more efficiently contributes to their endurance and success in longer runs. Women also tolerate hot and humid racing conditions better than men because of their smaller body size, according to a 1999 article in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology.
Foot patrols involve carrying 50 to 100 pounds of equipment for miles at a time, and I’ve seen male Marines who can bench-press 300 pounds but struggle to walk two miles with 50 pounds of gear. And you don’t have to bench-press 300 pounds to pull a trigger. If a woman passes the physical requirements, why shouldn’t she get the chance to fight?