A victory for women, but at high cost

Karen Heller / The Philadelphia Inquirer /


Published Feb 3, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Serving in combat was never high on the original feminist agenda. Women fought for the vote and equal pay, not for the equal opportunity to get killed.

Indeed, I have long believed that not serving on the front lines of war was one of the great advantages of being a woman. Women lead longer, healthier lives in no small part because we’re less engaged with and exposed to sustained violence.

So when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the long ban on women in combat last week, I was conflicted. For decades, parents worried about their sons getting killed in battle. Now we must worry about all our children.

Allowing women in combat is resolutely the right move, argue some veterans. Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught has championed women in combat since she went off to Vietnam soon after the Tet Offensive without military marksman training (she learned from her brother-in-law) or a weapon (she secured two from another officer).

“I feel very strongly that I shouldn’t be told I can’t try to do something because I’m a woman,” said Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Instead, “we should have the person who can do the job best.”

Staunch feminists and antiwar activists like Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan also support the decision. “The old me would have been deeply ambivalent,” Morgan told me, “but the simple, flat-out truth is that women are already in combat and have been in combat for some time.” Morgan joined the advisory board of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), the advocacy group that sued the military last November challenging the combat ban.

Women constitute almost 15 percent of current enrollment in military active duty. More than 800 women have been wounded, and 130 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter now America’s longest war. U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth lost both legs as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot flying missions in Iraq.

The nature of battle has profoundly changed. We don’t have trench warfare anymore. An IED can explode anywhere, rendering any site a combat zone. But with women on active combat duty, the number of female casualties will surely rise.

One positive sign is that the top brass is changing in attitude, if not in appearance. “The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote this month, noting that more than 14,000 women were already serving under exceptions.

Obstacles remain. Women may not be able to pass some of the more rigorous physical standards required of top combat soldiers. In his letter, Dempsey acknowledges, “We need time to get it right.” The plan is to implement all changes by January 2016.

This should make for a more prepared military, one that integrates all soldiers into combat units. Women will be better trained and prepared for battle, “instead of the current workaround we have of attaching women to units,” said SWAN policy director Greg Jacob, a former Marine captain. “Women will now get proper credit and not be hindered in promotions and recognition.”

Which will certainly result in better pay and benefits, and more women in leadership. “It’s hard to make it to a general, for example, without a combat arms command at the brigade and battalion level,” Duckworth told NBC. “The more women we get in leadership positions, the more that our armed forces can take advantage of those talents, the better it is for our military.”

Agreed, and for our country. Women need obstacles removed from rising through the ranks while enjoying better and longer careers. The military needs to attract top talent while reflecting the nation’s true diversity. How long will it take until we have a female Colin Powell?

Clearly, this is a smart organizational decision that should draw to and retain more talent in the armed forces. “Women get to that midpoint, around the 10- or 12-year point, and they find they have greater opportunities on the outside and they leave the service,” said Vaught, who served almost three decades. “These are people we never ought to be losing.”

And the military culture must change. For a long time, I wondered why any woman would want to enlist. Tailhook was more than two decades ago, yet, as the Lackland Air Force Base scandal demonstrates, some men have learned nothing. Women testified before Congress that they feared their instructors more than the enemy.

According to the Department of Defense, 19,000 soldiers, the great majority of them women, are sexually assaulted each year in a military that embraces the latest technology while not doing nearly enough to end brutal, antediluvian behavior.

More women in positions of command will not only improve the military, but make it safer for everyone. We will produce better soldiers, male and female.

“Combat is no place for a human being,” Jacob told me, and I concur. This seems a hard price for equality, but I’m convinced it’s the path to progress and bringing our military fully into the modern era.