Editor’s note: On occasion, Checkpoint will feature work from U.S. service members and veterans. This is one such piece.
Last week, the Marine Corps announced the scheduled end of an 18-month experiment to vet females through its Infantry Officer Course. The results were bleak: 0 of 29 women made it past the three-month course. On April 20, the first females will attempt the Army’s elite Ranger training, and other combat schools are also now open to women on trial bases.
The moves are part of the military’s efforts to comply with the lifting of the Combat Exclusion Policy, but such initiatives have been broadly criticized along the way.
Why the controversy? After all, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had the unanimous backing of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he rescinded the ban in early 2013. Even Gen. James Amos, the former Marine Commandant who opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ” responded positively, saying that the Corps selected its warfighters “regardless of gender.”
The fact is that many rank-and-file leaders, both male and female, continue to oppose the change. Some arguments are technical, and focus on physical abilities or provisioning logistics for two sexes. Other concerns are less tangible, like adverse effects to morale and discipline. Many simply contend that the new policy does not help the military win wars.
But at issue here is not a mutiny in the ranks against the defense secretary; in fact, the services have until January 2016 to request exceptions to the policy. The problem is a disconcerting inability or unwillingness of the military’s mid-level managers to dispassionately evaluate the subject.
Many officers seem to prefer speculation and emotion to scientific research and reason. In a Washington Post op-ed, a proponent hypothesized that simply training men and women to one physical standard will equalize the sexes’ physiological disparities—she has no medical background. An opponent countered in the Marine Corps Gazette that farting, burping, and swapping sex stories invaluably promote infantry unit cohesion—but she never served in the infantry. Hollow analyses like these diminish the officer corps’ reputation for pragmatic professionalism.
First, the debate could benefit from sticking to medical research.
The policy’s critics frequently cite cautionary tales from military women with service-related medical problems as evidence that the female body is not built for combat. The approach is anecdotal, however, and fails to note that females are already serving in other countries’ combat specialties. Many of those women work until retirement, while plenty of their male counterparts suffer career-ending injuries.
The debate should include facts, like medical findings that show higher rates of injuries among military women than military men. Females generally lack similar upper body strength and are more likely to experience stress fractures, ACL tears, and other overuse injuries.
If women demonstrate higher injury rates, however, they are also more likely to seek help and follow their medical providers’ recommendations; men more commonly conceal their injuries. When one study adjusted the numbers to include unreported injuries, the gender gap in injury rates was no longer statistically significant.
Another observation is that baseline fitness, not gender, is likely the best indicator of whether or not a service member will sustain an injury. The services’ introductory training courses call for quick ramp-ups of physical training, so recruits are expected to arrive prepared. But trainee injury rates are astronomical — nearly 50 percent — for both sexes. And with 69 percent of the US population now overweight, the military’s candidate pool is shrinking, figuratively. Arbitrarily closing jobs based on gender could soon become untenable from a manpower perspective.
Secondly, U.S. officers should stop speculating in a vacuum about integration’s effects. As mentioned previously, America is no pioneer in this field.
Some argue that other countries’ experiences with female integration are irrelevant, as only nations threatened with annihilation, like Israel, resort to such desperate measures. In reality, women are serving in the combat forces of many NATO militaries and have for 36 years; the Dutch let women join combat units in 1979. Other unmolested countries to take this step include all in Scandinavia, most British Commonwealth states, and many Western European countries.
Females have only served in the Irish Defense Forces since 1980 — 32 years after the U.S. Women’s Armed Services Integration Act — but were already in combat roles by 1995. All must pass the same training to serve in combat specialties, and anyone is eligible for assignment to the “full range of operational and administrative duties.” Women have served in combat units alongside men, and as their leaders, during training in Ireland and on operations abroad.
Danish females fought in infantry units in Afghanistan. Norway places no restrictions on women’s roles and drafts them for mandatory military duty. Canadian women serve in combat units, and physical standards are scientifically correlated to essential combat tasks. In New Zealand, females comprise 6 percent of the officers in combat and operations branches.
We propose that this is not an issue about women, but one of standards. Impartial officers already know this. Few of them, however, question how current guidelines were developed or when they were last re-evaluated; they just maintain that standards should not be lowered. Initiatives like the Marine Corps’ Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force might assist such a review by using performance-based data to inform updated, scientific standards.
Available medical research and the experiences of other countries cannot explain why American women are so woefully under-qualified for service in combat specialties. Nor can critics explain why women are found at construction sites, on police forces, or in any occupation where a bigger, stronger man can better perform the physical aspect of the job.
Re-evaluate the standard, publish the standard, and hold the standard. For everyone.
The authors are writing in their private capacities. David Kelm is a former U.S. Marine infantry officer who deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Jayne Lawlor is an Irish cavalry officer and has deployed to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, and Liberia. Nicole Martin is a physical therapist who has treated hundreds of injured U.S. military personnel.