I just finished the manuscript for “Groundbreaker: Coming of Age in the First Class of Women at the United States Air Force Academy.” That is also the reason I neglected my blog these last two months. I appreciate all of you who checked in with me here.
The not-so-big news of late is the opening up of combat positions to women by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Spread that news to all our women fighter pilots, the families of the women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our wounded women veterans. Of course, the difference is that now, instead of military units justifying why a specialty should be open to women, the military will have to justify to their Joint Chief why a specialty is not open to women. Cary Lohrenz, who is very familiar with the hardships a woman faces when entering an all-male field, explains the impact of the Secretary’s action at this link. Instead of women serving in combat in a “temporary billet,” their service will be credited with a correct job identifier.
Reporters, soldiers, and readers questioning the potential opening of new combat soldier positions to women bring up many of the same arguments I faced when I entered USAFA thirty-six years ago. The good news is that few Americans now question the effectiveness of women warriors or the ability of the nation to accept women killed, captured, or wounded in action. If you scroll down the transcript of Secretary Panetta’s and General Dempsey’s press conference announcing the change, you will see that what reporters still question is how the military will handle privacy issues, combat soldiers having sex with each other, and physical fitness standards.
My experience is that privacy concerns are the first thing people stop worrying about in stressful situations. I remember the three day “trek” I made in the wilderness with two male classmates during survival training. The only thing on our minds was making our checkpoints, not getting caught, and passing the course. The biggest issue with bodily functions was making sure that the other two cadets kept a sharp look-out for “aggressors” so none of us would be caught with “our pants unzipped.” I can assure you that when that happens in a combat scenario, a woman will go for her weapon first and her pants second. Privacy is not very important, even in the civilian world. I change into my ski instructor uniform in a 300 person, co-ed locker room, in-between two twenty-something men and across the aisle from a sixty-something man, with women of various ages on either side of them. We manage to do this twice a day without orgies or fainting spells, because it is what the working culture expects from us. Any eye-candy is enjoyed strictly through discreet, sidewise glances. Of course, some sights are just ignored. The fictional movie StormTroopers shows a very modern view of how men and women combat soldiers might interact.
As far as soldiers having sex — that will depend a lot on the expectations, discipline, and retribution imposed on them by their NCOs and commanders. Commanders often have to “lay down the law” for their units, and be willing to enforce whatever standard they set. This is the same as it has always been, no matter how accessible women are.
Finally, there is the issue of physical fitness. When the Navy needed to put more SEALs into active service, they re-examined the 85% attrition rate of their indoctrination course. Instead of creating injuries with punishing, repetitive exercises, they reduced the amount of physical training and increased its variety (Lauren, 4,8). In other words, the Navy changed the daily fitness standards to increase military preparedness. Because only men could apply, this change in standards did not make the news. So, did this change result in a less prepared military? I doubt if Osama Bin Laden thought so in his dying moments. What the Navy did is apply modern conditioning principles to its course, so the end product meets mission requirements. If introducing women candidates forces the military to examine how training produces people capable of filling all mission requirements, this is a good thing. In my experience, competing physically with women motivates men to do better. I remember how ashamed my male classmates were when I scored the highest in the squadron on our physical fitness test in 1977. Sure, I got more points than they did for my (male) push-ups and my timed run — but I still beat many of them outright. I continued to “max” the subsequent tests, but so did several of the men. They just needed me to motivate them. The result was a more fit squadron. While the average eighteen year-old girl will have less strength than her male peer, outstanding women can certainly meet most jobs’ existing physical standards, including three pull-ups, seventy sit-ups, etc. Introducing outstanding female candidates will increase military combat readiness overall.
While I applaud the Secretary officially opening combat jobs to women, I have two concerns. The first is that not enough women will apply to make this a meaningful change. Who wants to go into combat? Only the most motivated, patriotic, and dedicated candidates, who feel that they are called to protect others. While many women experience this calling, our culture encourages them to fulfill it in different ways. I was shocked to see a woman officer comment on a story about marine infantry school: “3 pull-ups is a lot!” While I only forced myself to master one or two pull-ups, there were several women in my class (swimmers and gymnasts) who could crank-out three to ten pull-ups. Too many young Americans do not push themselves physically. My next concern is that the assignment process will take one or two women who do meet standards and place them in a large unit. Groundbreaking women need to support each other when facing a hostile environment (and I do not mean the enemy). Fortunately, General Dempsey is aware of this, and during his press conference said:
The other part of the equation, of course, is in order to account for their safety and their success in those kinds of units, we got to have enough of them so that they have mentors and leaders above them — you know, you wouldn’t want to take one woman who can meet a standard and put her in a particular unit. . . . — kind of the critical mass, if you will, to make this work. But that’s what — that’s our commitment.
I encourage women who wish to be part of something larger than themselves, who are willing to die, or force someone else to die, for their country, to consider giving General Dempsey enough candidates that this change is meaningful.
Of course, my biggest, and least likely hope is that neither men nor women will need to serve in combat.