Yesterday, while most of the national media’s attention was focused on Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Congressional testimony on the fatal attacks against the United State’s diplomatic posts in Benghazi Libya, the Department of Defense quietly announced that it will begin the process of allowing female service members to serve in combat positions within the military. This is a significant change in DoD policy – and one that is rapidly eclipsing the Benghazi hearings as the major story of the week.
Historically, females serving in the armed services have been limited to support roles, or roles where they are theoretically outside of dangerous combat zones. They have been medics, truck drivers, sailors, mechanics, engineers, office administrators, construction foremen, pilots of non-combat aircraft, cooks, supply specialists, trainers, gunnery officers…and the list goes on and on. In reality, the ladies of the U.S. military have borne the same levels of exposure and risk as their male counterparts, and have shown grace and bravery under fire in nearly every major military conflict in U.S. history. Female veterans generally go on to be highly successful private citizens, starting careers and families, and in many cases staying actively engaged in civic life. Several sitting members of Congress are female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
You can read more on the announcement, and how various Washington D.C. figures and leaders are reacting to it here.
With all of this in mind, it makes sense to me that the military would begin to eliminate what has in many ways become an arbitrary distinction between “combat” and “non-combat” roles for women. Any veteran of America’s most recent wars can tell you that truck drivers and medics are very much on the front lines when the enemy’s primary weapon is an IED. In the first week of the Iraq war U.S. service woman PFC Jessica Lynch, a supply unit specialist, was famously taken prisoner when her unit was overrun during a fire fight during the battle of Nasiriyah, she was later successfully rescued from captivity. Her fellow unit member (and native Arizonan) SPC Lori Ann Piestewa was the first Native American service woman killed in combat. We have since learned that it is as likely that a secure military base or Embassy compound can become the combat zone as a forward infantry outpost. The wars of the last 60 years are very different from earlier conflicts, and our notions of “front” and “combat zone” are changing. The military is right to consider this reality and realistically acknowledge that every U.S. service member is putting their life on the line in service of country. If females are trusted on bases, in supply convoys, submarines, and on medical missions – which they are! – then an impartial consideration of how they may serve in active combat roles deserves our consideration.
I understand the sensibility of commentators like Joe Carter at First Things when he raises expected conservative arguments against this change. I too would be very troubled if, in fact, this change were politically motivated by theories of equality that deny the existence of differences, gender or otherwise, and demand total egalitarianism without consideration to other factors. If that were the case, then valid accusations could be made that ideology has so influenced us that we are willing to undermine the readiness and capacity of our military in pursuit of a theory. Rather, I’d hope that any gender integration is rooted in empirical data showing that female combat soldiers bolster our capacity and readiness and improve the quality of our military forces. I trust that the military has done due diligence in studying how this change will alter the nature of our combat forces, and will continue to do so as the process gets underway.
I also hope that they are preparing to deal with several practical issues that will arise from this change. Recent DoD studies suggest that female military personnel are at greater risks for stress, depression, and substance abuse issues linked to combat and traumatic war experiences. The resources and medical care provided to combat veterans will have to be studied to ensure that it is meeting the needs of male and female soldiers equally, instead of being designed to serve a mostly male patient group.
Another study cited in the above link also suggests that female veterans are considerably less likely than their civilian peers to be actively using contraceptives. The uncomfortable reality is that greater integration of female service members into the male dominated units will increase the likelihood of serves members engaging in sexual activities that may result in pregnancies. At some level this seems fairly obvious – as the military creates a tight knit community where members are emotionally bonded by shared experiences and live close together for long periods of time. Considering that the vast majority of service members are heterosexual, it seems likely that further integration will lead to increased potential for romantic and sexual relationships to develop between opposite gendered troops, and this carries risks of pregnancy. The lose of a unit member due to pregnancy could be a real blow to readiness, the military needs to deal with the implications. Regulations already exist to discourage sexual relationships between service members, but many members of the military community are young adults under the age of 25. While they are undeniably brave professionals, they are also still teenagers and young adults who make immature decisions from time to time. The military knows this, the question is, are they educating service members on how to be sexually responsible, and providing them with resources they need to stay safe and battle ready?
And there are darker issues to address as well. Reports of sexual harassment and abuse at U.S. military academies are alarmingly common. Has any thought been given to how the risks of sexual assault and harassment change as female personnel transition from ‘support’ to ‘combat’ roles? What protections will be put in place to ensure female combat troops do not face the threat of attack from their fellow soldiers?
These are some practical worries I have moving forward. I have faith that our military will take its time (if past major changes are any indication) to ensure that it irons out this transition. I imagine that the Israeli Defense Force, long integrated, will serve as a model. I am excited for female service members and veterans that this announcement calls attention to and highlights the valuable roles they play in all of our military missions.
A Couple Questions:
What do family scholars readers think about the announcement – is it a good thing or a bad thing?
This change opens up many opportunities for young women to advance in careers in the military, do you think more young women will sign up for military service as a result?
I’m sure that I left out some practical considerations needing to be addressed, what did I miss?
I didn’t really go into how military families might be affected by Mom potentially serving on the front lines, but that is something we could also discuss.
I look forward to your thoughts.