Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts. --Charles Dickens

Part 2 Of Women In Combat

First Posted: Nov. 24, 2015, 8:24 a.m. CST
Last Updated: Nov. 24, 2015, 8:25 a.m. CST
Army Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker was in command of a platoon of soldiers in Iraq. She was part of a Military Police Company. While on patrol in Iraq, a rocket propelled grenade tore through her right shoulder nearly severing her arm. The grenade detonated inside her armored Humvee and tore the arm of another soldier. She was awarded the Purple Heart. Lt. Halfaker and other severely injured female soldiers say, reality has overtaken that debate. "Women in combat is not really an issue," Halfaker says. "It is happening."

A Chorus of Old Men.

As the deadline draws closer, the debate has once again ignited and opponents like Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, criticized the 2010 decision by then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: “The question you’ve got to ask yourself every single time you make a change like this is: Does it increase the combat effectiveness of the military?” Rep. Hunter said, “I think the answer is no.” Hunter is a member of the Armed Services Committee and an Iraq War veteran. Retired Army General Jerry Boykin, a former Delta Force Warfighter and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence under President Bush in 2002 to 2007 called the move to integrate the combat forces as “wrongheaded.” Writing for CNN, General Boykin explains, “The proof that this decision is ideologically and not militarily based is its very sweeping nature. It appears that the people who did this are engaged in a vast social experiment in which hundreds of thousands of men and women will be the guinea pigs. We are now testing a hypothesis that may impair the military effectiveness of our ground forces.”

Stephen Gould once said that hierarchies last no more than a few generations, but the arguments cycle endlessly for the next round of social institutions. So, does it go with the arguments against women in combat. Arguments that women will lower combat effectiveness were also used to counter another “social experiment.” When President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 he sought to de-segregate the military. 9981 built on previous acts and executive orders and integrated the armed forces after World War II. The opposition to a mixed race army used the same argument as General Boykin and Rep. Hunter that by folding minorities into the “regular ranks” would lower morale; degrade combat effectiveness; and in general make a “mess” of things. Those opposing racial integrations argued that men of color were physically and mentally inferior to white men. Never mind that we had just fought and won World War II, defeated fascist totalitarianism, and saved the world from evil oppression.

It ignores and disregards the fact that segregated minority units like the all-black 3d Marine Ammunition Company distinguished themselves in the Battle for Saipan, and about 420 Navajo code talkers, as well as individuals like Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima. The US Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team was composed of Asian Americans. The 442nd remains the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts. The unit was awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations (5 earned in one month).Twenty-one of its members were awarded Medals of Honor. During the entirety of their combat service, almost all of the families of the men in the 442nd where in internment camps in the States. All of them returned to a racially segregated America.
Kenneth Claiborne Royall, who had been Secretary of the Army in 1947, was forced into retirement in April 1949 for continuing to refuse to desegregate the army nearly a year after President Truman's Order. Even after Royall retired, the Army brass continued to drag their feet. During the Korean War, Despite EO 9981, Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney, found that many line companies remained segregated. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's command in Korea rebuked a respected Army historian for writing from the battlefield that integrated units fought better. It would take another war and two more decades before the armed forces would be fully integrated. Colin Powell became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989 served in that post until 1993, holding the position during the Persian Gulf War. He was the first, and so far the only, African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to hold the key position. No other black officer has been appointed to the Joint Chiefs even under President Obama.

In November 2012, the ACLU, following the precedent set by Justice Thurgood, filed a lawsuit, Hegar et al. v. Panetta, in which the ACLU represented four servicewomen and the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in a challenging the Defense Department’s longstanding ban on women in ground combat positions. The four servicemembers have all done tours in Iraq or Afghanistan--some deploying multiple times--where they served in combat or led female troops who went on missions with combat infantrymen. Two of them received Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat. One was a pilot who was shot down by enemy fire. Two, Like Lt. Halfaker, were officers who commanded men and women in combat.

Same old “white wash.” President Truman’s “social experiment,” as Gen. Boykin would call it, seemed to turn out alright. But the “old crows” sitting on the fence far removed from combat are crowing the same recycled arguments refurbished for another generation. Critics of women in combat don’t even see their argument as flawed. They ignore realities on the battlefield, and within the ranks, and in the world. Female warfighters like L/Cpl Liberty and Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker are no longer the anomaly or the anecdote. It is no longer the fantasy of Hollywood liberals. It is a battle field reality. Lt. Halfaker and other severely injured female soldiers say, reality has overtaken that debate. "Women in combat is not really an issue," Halfaker says. "It is happening."
Following the June 1944 Battle of Saipan, Marine General Alexander Vandegrift said of the steadfast performance of the all-black 3d Marine Ammunition Company: "The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period." Women like Halfaker and Liberty are no longer “Female Marines or soldiers” – they are warfighters. Therein lies the flaw to the old crow argument, in modern warfare gender has no preference on the battlefield or on either side of the conflict. It is about individual ability, not gender. There are men who don’t make it through boot camp, and as a grunt serving in a Marine Rifle Company, I served with male Marines who were “rocking out” or failing their primary MOS schools, and being kicked to grunt units to serve out their enlistments. Additionally, the static nature of previous conflicts of fixed trenches and “frontlines” are no longer valid. To think that somehow, women in combat get separate but equal accommodations from the enemy is ludicrous and as germane today as the Maginot Line. The gentleman’s war of saber charges, muskets and tea times is long gone. As Gen. Dempsey noted in 2003, the battlefield had changed. But not just the battlefield, the world itself had changed. Around the world, at least 16 industrialized countries allow women in combat.

But if you are a student of American history, this is nothing new. The US was one of the last nations to abolish slavery and the slave trade. We were again one of the last industrialized countries to allow women to vote, Jim Crow and segregation continued in the south, and Native Americans were not made citizens and allowed to vote until 1964. As “defenders of the free world, we often seem reluctant to abide by the very universal principles of freedom and equality that we purport to defend. In 2009, almost a decade into the War on Terror, Human Rights Watch noted this “reluctance” once more:

“The US has not ratified any international human rights treaties since December 2002, when it ratified two optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since that time, important new treaties have been adopted and other long-standing treaties have gained new member states. Unfortunately, the US has too often remained outside these efforts. For example, the US is the only country other than Somalia that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. It is one of only seven countries-together with Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan and Tonga- that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).”

Note the last treaty on discrimination of women. Gen. Boykin in his article for CNN, cites harsh and unforgiving combat conditions that must be sustained over long periods of time, sexual tensions, and other unpleasantries like having to urinate or defecate in sight of other fellow soldiers. Eww. Cooties. Clearly, the general has crafted his article to a particular audience and it is an audience that is largely disengaged, uneducated and ambivalent about the military or modern combat. He panders to antiquated stigmas, stereotypes and out-dated Arthurian beliefs. Despite this, he seems to contradict himself. He argues that women should not be in “direct combat roles” within infantry and Special Forces as they are too delicate for the harsh realities of ground combat. But as he points out in his own article:

“America's ongoing war against terror-supporting states and terror networks, commenced after 9/11, has seen an increased combat role for women in the U.S. armed forces. According to recent news accounts, more than 800 have been wounded and more than 130 have died (2013 figures for wounded and killed). Clearly, women have fought honorably, bravely and with great distinction.”

In the finest traditions of military service. Great distinction indeed. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women have fired rifles, lobbed grenades, faced suicide bombers and defended their country alongside their male counterparts. As of 2006, Women’s Memorial Foundation has recorded 106 female recipients of the Purple Heart. A medal awarded to warfighters who are wounded in combat. U.S. Army Surgeon General and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, a Purple Heart recipient, stated that “women are currently serving at the tip of the spear in positions that only females can fill, such as female engagement teams.” Gen. Horoho also stated that the opening of combat positions to all genders will lead to an increase of female combat casualties, “we can expect that women will take on more roles that will put them in harm’s way … The Purple Heart medal is a testament to their heroism, sacrifice and resilience.”

One of those recipients was Army Lt. Dawn Halfaker. Halfaker and her military police platoon were on a reconnaissance patrol in Baqouba, Iraq, when their vehicle was hit in an ambush. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded inside their armored Humvee, grievously wounding two of the soldiers inside. Interviewed by USA Today, Halfaker recounts that she was dazed and covered in blood, but somehow mustered the energy to give an order to her driver, "Get out of the kill zone!" Halfaker's right arm was loosely connected to her torso. Later, she was told, the rocket had gone through her shoulder before detonating. The second soldier, one of her sergeants, Staff Sgt. Norberto Lara was in worse shape. His right arm, Halfaker remembers, was completely severed. Despite her catastrophic wounds, Halfaker did not succumb to her wounds or the horrific scene before her, she maintained her composure as a leader and commander of soldiers, and was able to extricate her troops from the kill zone. That does sound like somebody who is concerned with indelicacies of “watching a fellow soldier urinate and defecate” in front of her? I think that is the least of Lt. Halfaker’s concerns. Lt. Halfaker commanded about a dozen soldiers in her platoon.

Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, a helicopter rescue pilot with the Air National Guard, was shot down by enemy fire in Afghanistan in 2009 while rescuing three injured soldiers. The Major earned a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor as a result. Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt is barred from serving in the infantry. But that didn't stop her commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq from attaching her to infantry units on their door-kicking missions when they needed a female soldier to search and interview Afghan women. The 28-year-old Gaithersburg reservist earned a Purple Heart in Iraq in 2007. Like many of her fellow warfighters, SSgt Hunt earned her Purple Heart when her Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb, causing shrapnel injuries to her face, arms and back. Like the men wounded by the blast, she was awarded a Purple Heart - even though, according to U.S. government policy, she wasn't officially in combat. "The enemy doesn't distinguish between gender," SSGt Hunt said. Both the Major and the Staff Sergeant are plaintiffs in the ACLU suit.

Sergeant Leigh Hester was the first female U.S. Army soldier to receive the Silver Star since World War II, and the first ever to be cited for valor in close quarters combat. As recorded by the Washington Post, Sgt. Hester's squad of two women and eight men in three Humvees were shadowing a 30-truck supply convoy when approximately 50 insurgent fighters ambushed the convoy with AK-47 and RPK machine gun fire, and with rocket propelled grenades (RPG). The squad moved to the side of the road, flanking the insurgents and cutting off their escape route. Sgt. Hester then maneuvered her team through the kill zone and into a flanking position, where she and her squad leader, Staff Sergeant Timothy Nein, assaulted a trench line with hand grenades and M203 grenade launcher rounds. According to after action reports, Sgts. Hester and Nein assaulted and cleared two trenches. During the 25-minute firefight, Sgt. Hester killed 3 insurgents.

Specialist Monica Lin Brown’s Silver Star Citation commends her “for extraordinary heroism while serving as a Combat Medic with the 4th Squadron, 73d Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82d Airborne Division” while “on a combat patrol moving to Jani Khel, Afghanistan.” During the action Specialist Brown at great risk to herself and under small arms fire, machine gun fire and mortars treated two wounded comrades, even shielding the wounded with her own body from explosions and mortar fire. The citation says it all: “Specialist Brown's heroic actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service, reflecting great credit upon herself, the 82d Airborne Division, and the United States Army.”

Detractors, both active military and veterans, male and female, oppose the fact that warfighters such as Halfaker and Hester be awarded the Army’s Combat Infantryman’s Badge, as they are not “infantry,” nor are they “men,” and that being hit by an IED or escorting a convoy is not “engaging the enemy.” One blogger, identified as Alexander Hayes, writes, “the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB), … is awarded for participation in ground combat, notice how it is called the Combat InfantryMAN Badge, not WOMAN. Also notice it's not even a "Combat INFANTRY Badge" It is a Combat InfantryMAN Badge" Notice how it says MAN not WOMAN.” (The capitalization of the word MAN and WOMAN was done by Mr. Hayes in his original comment). Such arguments maintain that archaic and antiquated policies, procedures and practices should be maintained not because they reflect the changes in the modern battlefield, but because it “has always been that way.” It’s like arguing that the Army should go back to using muskets, ball and shot and use Civil War tactics and formations to fight ISIS or Al Qaeda. Thousands of lives were lost during the Civil War because Army tactics and formations did not adapt to the technological advances of modern weaponry. It happened again in World War I. In the conflicts of the late 1980s and 1990s, the US military struggled with responding to an “insurgency war,” despite the lessons of Vietnam, as Generals and Commanders were geared to fight World War II and not a modern “war on Terror.”

(This is part 2 of a series of articles on Women in Combat. Please stay tuned for subsequent articles exploring the pros and cons, and alternative reasons to allowing women in combat)



This article was written by Joaquin Rafael Roces. Joaquin is a Marine Corps Veteran, is active in his faith community, and has served as a Eucharistic Minister and Religious Education Instructor for over 15 years. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and recently became involved in the parish’s Youth Ministry. He has a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Borderline Personality Disorder and has been in recovery for three years. In 2015 Joaquin was trained by the National Alliance for Mental Illness to be an In Our Own Voice Presenter. Joaquin travels throughout Northern Nevada working with NAMI to change attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes by describing the reality of living with mental illness and sharing his recovery story. Through the In Our Own Voice presentations, people with lived experience with mental illness share their powerful personal stories.

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