A salute to women in combat



Finally, another wall has fallen. That the wall had been breached in practice, if not in policy, appears to be lost on those who persist in viewing women as the weaker sex.

When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week announced that the U.S. military had lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles, the chorus of protest and doubt was immediate and strident.

Among the most quoted critics has been Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin (Ret., USA), who termed the decision “another social experiment.”

Sort of like giving women the right to vote?

A friend says that response is not fair to the general, who objects primarily to women being in units like Special Ops. But the term “social experiment” is jarring, and I can’t help but think of the historic battle American women had to wage against a patriarchal society before that secondclass citizenship was removed in 1920.

Another criticism is that, while the focus of military commanders “must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast-moving and deadly situations.”

Perhaps, instead of all the nay-saying, experts like Boykin – a battle-hardened, medal-bedecked former Delta Force officer – could volunteer to help those commanders solve the problems they foresee.

American women in combat will be a reality. Has been a reality. Technically holding only combat support roles, they have been wounded and they have been killed. They have been combatants. Unofficially. But they are officially dead.

In a 2011 article datelined Afghanistan, the N.Y. Times quoted a staff sergeant who had lost one of his female platoon members to a roadside bomb: “Out here,” he said, “there is no male gender and no female gender. Our gender is soldier.”

The battalion commander commented, “To the average soldier who’s out there on a mission, it doesn’t make a difference. Can that person on my left or right shoot is what matters. I got to tell you the females in my battalion are absolutely amazing.”

In announcing last week’s decision, Panetta noted, “This is where we have been heading as a department for more than 10 years. It will take leadership and it will take professionalism to implement these changes. Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance.”

He also said: “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, we are not reducing qualifications — then they should have the right to serve.”

Repeat: Not reducing qualifications.

Unfortunately, too many people believe that women cannot possibly fulfill equal requirements. They should reserve judgment.

Back in 1976, there was a similar uproar when women were finally admitted to West Point.

In his brilliantly written book “The Long Gray Line,” author Rick Atkinson recounts an incident when some male cadets complained to the physed instructor that the females were “poor runners.”

The instructor’s response was: “Okay, guys, physiologically, the women have 40% more body fat, so just to make it even. let’s give you a 70-pound weight to carry. They have only 60% as much lung capacity, so let’s degrade your breathing by making you wear this mask. They have a little mechanical disadvantage in their hip structure, so we’ll put a brace between your legs to make you pigeon-toed. Now go run a mile, guys, and see if you can keep up with the women.”

– Karen Zautyk

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