Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s Jan. 24 announcement he would lift restrictions on women in combat positions has stirred up quite a bit of discussion.
Anyone who wants a stronger U.S. military should welcome the lifting of combat restrictions and what that change means for readiness and diversity within the armed forces.
It’s important to note a couple of key facts: First, women have been involved in combat since well before the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks. Second, Panetta has made clear he does not expect the services to change the physical requirements for demanding jobs such as Air Force pararescue, Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets or other special operations programs.
One name comes immediately to my mind when I think of women who have seen combat: 1st Lt. Roslyn Schulte, a 2006 Air Force Academy graduate who was killed in action while deployed to Afghanistan in May 2009.
Less recent names of note take a bit more digging, but they’re not hard to find:
- Retired Col. Martha McSally, a 1988 Academy graduate who flew in support of Operations Southern Watch and Enduring Freedom;
- Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, a 1996 graduate who flew in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom;
- Lt. Col. Kim Campbell, a 1997 graduate who took part in air operations over Baghdad, Iraq, in April 2003.
While the physical requirements for pilots differ from those for many special operations career fields, flying in combat carries the significant risk of being shot down and either killed or captured.
More importantly, the strategy of asymmetrical warfare popular with the Taliban and al Qaeda doesn’t recognize “combat roles” or front lines. Army Spec. Lori Piestewa, Army Spec. Shoshana Johnson and Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch were assigned to the Army Quartermaster Corps, but that didn’t stop Iraqi army forces from ambushing their convoy in March 2003. Johnson and Lynch were taken prisoner and later rescued, while Piestewa was killed.
Still, Panetta’s decision isn’t without controversy. On the Air Force’s official website, “Brandon” from Miami writes, in part, “Men are naturally hardwired to protect women even if it is with our lives.” Notwithstanding the fact that service members are trained to protect any of their fellow brothers or sisters in uniform, I’ve yet to see any scientific evidence to corroborate Brandon’s assumption.
The decision could also help solve a long-term problem: the lack of diversity within the Pentagon’s top ranks. According to a 2009 Defense Manpower Data Center statistics, fewer than 10 percent of general officers across the services are women, even though women made up 16 percent of the active-duty officer corps.
It took nearly 65 years from the day Esther Blake joined the Air Force until Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger (a 1980 Academy graduate) became the Air Force’s first four-star general. A big stumbling block has traditionally been a lack of combat experience, but you can’t get combat experience if you’re not allowed to serve – and lead – in combat roles.
That wasn’t fair to women, so Panetta fixed it.
As James Hill of Columbia, Tenn., wrote on the Air Force website, “As a 32-year veteran, all I have to say is, go for it. In my 79 years of life, I have learned that women can be tough as nails. I saw my son … make a pararescueman, and I know his daughter is as tough as he is.”
People are going to worry about unit cohesion anytime something happens to change a unit’s composition. It was true for racial desegregation in 1948; it was true when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011, and it’s true now. People even get nervous about new unit commanders or permanent changes of station.
It’s easier to make up reasons for change-related anxiety than it is to admit you don’t know what might happen. But if past experience is any indication, the armed forces will be just fine.