As the U.S. military moves forward with integrating women in elite combat units, there is still a fair amount of opposition. That remains clear, based on a study newly released by the Pentagon following Defense Ashton B. Carter’s decision this month to begin full gender integration by no later than April 1.
The study, alluded to here in a lengthy new examination of the gender integration effort, found that 85 percent of those surveyed in U.S. Special Operations Command opposed letting women into their jobs, and 71 percent opposed letting women into their unit. The interviews were carried out in summer 2014, but it seems unlikely that views have shifted dramatically since.
Opposition existed in all Special Operations forces, jobs and ranks, with Navy SEALs, Air Force special tactics team members and mid-ranking enlisted troops — non-commissioned officers, or NCOs — generally the most opposed, the study said. It was carried out by the Rand National Defense Research Institute, with interviews completed in 2014 and captured in a reported dated May 2015.
Jeff Butler, a former Navy SEAL who left the military in 2003, said that the majority of the concerns he has heard from his colleagues is that adding women to elite units will alter unit cohesion and cause social disruption.
“The worry is that politicians and military leaders, by pushing this integration, and by drastically changing the social make-up of these all-male units, risk throwing a wrench into a finely operating war machine,” Butler said. “The fear is that the community will have to place so much focus on getting women through the training, dealing with women joining the small units, and all that will come with such a change, that it will detract from their operational focus in a time of war.”
Butler said he believes it can work, but that there will be a period of adjustment. The Pentagon, he added, should listen to the concerns of Special Operations Forces (SOF) leaders at all ranks.
“Some of these concerns will no doubt be more important than others, but all will stem from what SOF operators and leadership believe is in the best interests of the community, and its operational effectiveness,” Butler said. “No one should demonize the community for expressing its concerns with the integration. They want what is best for the special operations community, not to hold women back.”
Army Maj. Lisa Jaster, who became one of the first three women ever to graduate from the Army’s Ranger School, argued in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post on Friday that women will overcome the concerns that have long been raised about full gender integration.
“None of these arguments is new,” she wrote. “And all of them ignore the fundamental fact that brute strength is not the only, or even the most important, factor in a successful combat mission. Courage, ingenuity, strategic thinking, levelheadedness, marksmanship and an ability to read people all factor into whether a unit succeeds or a mission goes south. Yes, we will maintain physical standards, and some women will fail, but the ones who succeed will bring new strengths as well, making their units stronger and more agile.”
Behind the scenes with the first two women to graduate from Army Ranger School
The Associated Press previously reported on the overall findings. But the release of the full gender integration report now provides a fascinating window into what some of those polled said. It’s clear they didn’t pull many punches, based on the commentary.
Some of the remarks here, separated by category:
— “Once I had females in my command in a building built for all-male teams. Now I had to cordon off half of the room to accommodate females, and now males are doubling up lockers, saying ‘what the hell, I’m an operator and she has her own suite.’ There are going to be significant facility issues.” — A master chief in Naval Special Warfare Command
— “At Ft. Bliss, three women shared their own barracks. Men were stacked. Women had time in the shower, in the bathroom. Guys had to wait 20 minutes for a shower. It breeds dissension.” A sergeant first class in the Special Forces
Context: The most significant facilities concern, according to the study: “How do you build a cohesive team when you separate and treat some of the team members differently?”
Fears of women premenstrual syndrome
— “Acting on emotions may be a problem. Judgment may be altered. The effects of combat may have a different impact during those times, I’m not sure.” — a high-ranking “E-8” enlisted member of Air Force Special Operations Command
–– “I think PMS is terrible, possibly the worst. I cannot stand my wife for about a week out of the month for every month. I like that I can come to work and not have to deal with that.” — an enlisted petty officer first class serving as a special warfare combatant craft crewmen in Naval Special Warfare Command
— “I have a wife. She’s very independent. But when that time of her month comes, she’s weaker.” — A Navy SEAL who is a petty officer second class
Context: The report adds that participants discussing menstrual concerns were in the minority. But there were still at least several of them, underscoring the cultural issues the military will deal with as it integrates women.
— “If she gets pregnant, she’ll leave the team. Men don’t leave the team. What if the Team Sergeant is a woman? Or the medic? Whatever cohesiveness is gained in training is lost, especially if the woman is in a key leadership position.” — A sergeant first class in the Army Special Forces
— “Now you’re taking someone we rely on. She decides to go out and get pregnant… If she even comes back after that — because now she has a child to take care of — I have lost an asset to the team who is not a one-to-one replacement. There is no one-to-one replacement.” — A staff sergeant in Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC)
Context: This issue has some more practical concerns than PMS, but it also shows certain level of suspicion about when women might not be able to do their jobs.
Concerns about how wives will handle it
— “Me, I’m getting out. I will walk away from years of service. A lot of guys will do that. There’s no way I’m going to explain to my wife why I’m going to share a hotel room with a woman. I’m not dealing with that. I deal with enough s—. Them or me — that’s the way it works.” — MARSOC staff sergeant
Context: “Living in close quarters, working long hours and physical contact that is required during training were were cited as problems for many of the spouses, the study said.
Army cultural support teams get a better reception
In 2011, the Army and Special Operations Command approved the development of cultural support teams — groups of female soldiers who assisted Special Forces and Army Rangers in Afghanistan, including in combat situations. The study includes a number of comments from male soldiers who are familiar with them, some of which are positive. The study also includes some positive comments about female engagement teams (FETs), which worked with the Marines and Navy SEALs, although they were often not as close to combat.
— “The intel role (18F) might be viable. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with the CSTs. But when they were good, they were very good.” — Special Forces sergeant first class
— “In certain aspects, I defaulted to FET because they have the medical, intel piece. If you had something similar to those units, once again appeasing both sides, not jeopardizing standards of SEAL teams, we call them the enablers… I think if we utilized nurses, intel, linguists, maybe come up with a pool of certain enablers, I think that could help out SOCOM.” — Navy SEAL master chief
— “We already have CST. It’s a good capability, but it already exists. Don’t force me to take something I don’t need. Don’t evolve CST to ODA.” — Special Forces staff sergeant
Context: The comments show that Special Operations troops who have deployed in combat alongside women in the past, in some cases would welcome doing so again in similar circumstances. But even then many of them are still opposed to women serving as SEALs or in the “ODA” — an Operational Detachment-Alpha, or Special Forces team.