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Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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The Pentagon is opening more military positions to women, including some critical jobs that would bring them closer to the front lines. The new policy, announced last month, would make women eligible for more than 14,000 additional jobs, but still prohibits them from officially serving in combat.

Army Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star in 2005 for her actions during a firefight in Iraq. The Kentucky National Guard member was the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star since World War II. Army photo by Specialist Jeremy D. CrispArmy Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star in 2005 for her actions during a firefight in Iraq. The Kentucky National Guard member was the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star since World War II. Army photo by Specialist Jeremy D. Crisp“The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened, ensuring the mission is met with the best qualified and most capable, regardless of gender,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

Under the new rules, women could serve in a handful of new occupational specialties at the battalion level, mostly as mechanics or in communications. They would still be barred from serving in roughly 280,000 military slots.

Supporters of the new policy say it’s catching up to reality. Women have already served in some of the jobs, either at the brigade level or when they’ve been temporarily attached to battalions. And female troops have come under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan where the battle lines are blurred and insurgents are everywhere.

“I have served alongside women from the very beginning of my career,” says Sergeant First Class Don Dees, a 43-year-old Army Reservist from Virginia, who spent much of the last two years in Iraq. He remembers working with women as far back as 1989 in Panama, and he favors the Pentagon’s new rules.

Army Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star in 2005 for her actions during a firefight in Iraq. The Kentucky National Guard member was the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star since World War II. Army photo by Specialist Jeremy D. CrispArmy Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star in 2005 for her actions during a firefight in Iraq. The Kentucky National Guard member was the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star since World War II. Army photo by Specialist Jeremy D. Crisp“If the measure is ‘can you pull your own weight?’ that goes regardless of male or female. I don’t want anyone in my proverbial foxhole who is not going to contribute.  You’ve gotta be in the fight. If you’re not, I don’t want you and I don’t need you.”

Sergeant Kelly Carlin, 28, served six years in the Army, including two tours in Iraq. She worked in convoy support in Mosul during her first tour in 2007. She was on a team that went out into the field, towing humvees, MRAPs and tanks that got damaged in explosions, and she came under fire regularly as she crawled around vehicles trying to chain them up.

She, too, believes soldiers should be measured solely by their proficiency and professionalism.

“Not being confined to a service and support type job would be great for women,” she said. “As long as they carry their own weight and don’t hold the team down in an emotional or physical way.”

Carlin thinks women bring unique skills to the table, like relating to people from other cultures. But she also found that women still have to fight for respect in today’s military.  “It’s definitely tougher on women than men. … Women are scrutinized a lot more for small stuff – their looks [and] their PT abilities.”

Not everyone favors changing the policy to expand women’s roles.

Army Staff Sergeant Amanda Ford salutes the flag at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in March 2011. Photo by Malini WilkesArmy Staff Sergeant Amanda Ford salutes the flag at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in March 2011. Photo by Malini WilkesThe most notable opponent has been Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who said in a TV interview last month that “men have emotions when you see women in harm’s way.” Santorum said male troops might lose focus on their missions because of their natural instinct to protect women. He also expressed concern about whether women are physically able to serve closer to combat.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness sides with Santorum. In a “National Review” commentary last month, she wrote, “Women on average do not have the physical capability to lift a fully-loaded male soldier who has been wounded under fire in order to save his life.”

Carlin admits that could be an issue. She advocates having one PT standard for both men and women, so everyone on the battlefield is equally prepared. She also concedes that some men might have a protective urge. But overall, she likes the new policy.

“As time progresses, things change, and I think that rocking with the change and allowing things to progress naturally is a good thing,” she said.

The new rules are under Congressional review, but are expected to take effect this spring.

Of more than 6,300 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon says 144 were women.

Malini Wilkes is a former director of story development for the USO.