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Women In Combat

First Posted: Nov. 20, 2015, 10:52 p.m. CST
Last Updated: Nov. 20, 2015, 10:52 p.m. CST
A US Marine female recruit in bootcamp. The US armed forces appear divided in implementing the 2010 directive lifting the ban on women in combat. In the eve of the deadline, the US Army graduates its first female Rangers, while the Marine Corps fights the order for integration citing reports that integrated units are less effective than all male units.

Proponents argue that the move to included women in combat roles brings the US up to breast with its allies and reflects the harsh new realities of fighting a “modern insurgency war.” According to CNN, at least 16 industrialized countries -- mostly U.S. allies -- allow women in combat roles. Some have been doing it for more than a decade.

Certainly, in Vietnam, US troops struggled with women as combatants as the Vietcong and NVA were willing to use women to hide weapons and bombs, and as direct combatants as well. Enemy combatants in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan have used women as human shields, bomb delivery platforms and as direct combatants.
Opponents state that women in combat roles would be a mistake, and that proponents are carrying out a “social experiment” at the cost of unit effectiveness and morale. Detractors of the 2010 decision argue that women are biologically inferior and physically weaker than men. They site that women could not handle the harsh psychological and physical conditions of combat that can be at the very least bloody and brutal. Alexander Hayes, a self proclaimed Army veteran and Silver Star recipient, wrote in a comment regarding an article on whether women should be awarded the Army Combat Infantryman’s badge: “Better get 10 InfantryWOMEN to carry 1 InfantryMAN on a stretcher hahahaha…” Retired General Jerry Boykin even cited that “sexual tensions” amongst female and male troops would cause unnecessary and unneeded distractions for unit commanders in the field and compromise the mission.

Former Secretary Leon Panetta set the deadline for all the services to comply with the 2010 directive to fully integrate the US military and open all combat roles to women by January 2016. However, Service Chiefs could still ask for an exception for certain specialties and units. But as the days tick down to the deadline, most of the services have already taken steps to allow women into combat roles. The U.S. Army opened the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to women, and it has begun recruiting female pilots and crew chiefs. The elite and storied Ranger School has also accepted and graduated its first female officers as Rangers this past summer. The Navy put its first female officers on submarines in 2009, and Navy Secretary Mabus announced this year that the elite Navy SEALs will be open to women. Certain female ground troops have been attached to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan such as Female Engagement Teams that reach out to Iraqi and Afghan women in combat theaters and areas of operations since 2006. But not all are in step with the new directive, last month, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Joe Dunford, met with his boss and the current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and requested the Marine Corps be largely exempt from the 2010 directive. In January of 2016, the current Defense Secretary Ash Carter will make the final decision.

WARFIGHTER. In the ever evolving, and sometimes cryptic, lexicon of military speak, the term Warfighter is a modern apparition used to call US Forces in combat. Specifically, Infantry and Special Forces, and other traditional combat arms like Artillery and Armor. As the US military establishment lumber forward, with some varying degrees of enthusiasm and lack thereof among the services, the term came to popular use among boots on the ground soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Borrowed by our troops from a video game, its gender ambiguity reflects the changing landscape of the US Military Establishment and modern combat.
Marine Lance Corporal Erin Liberty was part of a convoy that was hit by an IED composed of five 155-millimeter incendiary rounds and propane tanks. Immediately after the explosion a firefight erupted. As she was dragged to safety by other Marines, she watched the wreckage of her vehicle roll over and crush an unconscious female Navy “Sea Bee” from the Navy’s Construction Battalions (known as CB or Sea Bees). Only moments before the explosion, L/Cpl Liberty was talking to the Sea Bee. She is a recipient of the Purple Heart.

L/Cpl Liberty was not the first. That dubious honor falls on US Army Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa. Spec. Piestewa served with the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps and was killed during an ambush and firefight with Iraqi Army forces. Their convoy had been ambushed and the same attack in which her fellow soldiers Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch sustained injuries. A member of the Hopi tribe, Spec. Piestewa was the first Native American woman in US history to die in combat while serving with the U.S. military and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Over a decade later, politicians, talking heads, and arm chair generals in Washington continue to debate whether women should or should not be in combat, the fact is women are already IN COMBAT. Since Spec. Piestewa’s death, more than 1000 female service members have been wounded in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and at least 139 have died from combat- and non-combat-related incidents in the theater of operations. Of these, 110 died as a result of serving in Iraq, and the last thirteen have all died in Afghanistan.
In fact to utter Spec. Piestewa’s name almost takes on a historic and mythic quality. Many of the veterans returning from the war today, may not even know who she was, as they were more than likely in junior high or elementary school when she died and her fellow warfighters were wounded and captured. When I discuss her with friends, there is this cloud that comes over their face as they try to pry her name from their deep bygone memory. They struggle to find the relevance or meaning of her name. It was as if I was speaking of Sarah Winnemucca or Sacagawea. There is a cognitive disconnection between her name and the war she died in. A war, which at current, is still being fought by our troops. There is a mountain peak in Arizona named after her, and in 2015, The Hopi Nation celebrated the 12th annual Lori Piestewa Memorial for Our Fallen Heroes and Families reception dinner this month. Perhaps the Hopi continue this memorial to keep her memory alive and relevant within their community, because she has certainly faded away in contemporary American society’s consciousness, a ghostly memory.

There is certainly nothing simple about the debate of women in combat. But the ongoing debate in the beltway is not reflective of the reality on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, a few months after Spec. Piestewa was killed in combat, General Martin Dempsey, then commander of the 1st Armored Division, was preparing for a trip outside his headquarters. Iraqi insurgents were targeting US troops with grenades, mortars and sniper fire. Gen. Dempsey took a moment to introduce himself to the crew of his Humvee. As the general climbed into his Humvee and tapped the turret gunner on the leg and asked, "Who are you?" The upper torso of the gunner was not visible from the inside of the Humvee. All that the general could see were a pair of legs in combat boots and clad in combat utilities. The gunner assigned to protect him replied, “I'm Amanda.” It was then, the general told reporters at the Pentagon in 2010, that he realized things were changing and that it was time to do something about it.

In 2010, General Dempsey was now the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The general sat alongside Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during a press conference as both men signed a directive that will open front-line posts to the roughly 200,000 women now serving in the active-duty military. Secretary Panetta said the move acknowledges the reality on the battlefield, where women who are officially segregated into technically non-combat roles often find themselves fighting alongside their male comrades. The enemy gives no preference to gender. Secretary Panetta said, “The fact is, they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission, and for more than a decade of war they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who served in Iraq as an officer in her state's National Guard, applauded the move. “The first two women who earned Silver Stars since World War II, one was a military police sergeant. Another was a medic,” Rep. Gabbard told CNN in 2010. “And they both were operating on the front lines per se, under fire, under extreme duress, shoulder to shoulder with their male and female counterparts and exhibiting great courage and heroism and saving the lives of their brothers and sisters.” Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, while assigned to the 617th Military Police Company, a Kentucky Army National Guard unit out of Richmond, received a Silver Star in 2005 for gallantry during an insurgent ambush on a convoy in Iraq. Army Specialist Monica Lin Brown was awarded the Silver Star in March 2008 for heroism in the War in Afghanistan.

(This is the first part of a series of articles on Women in Combat. Please stay tuned for subsequent articles exploring the pros and cons, and alternative reasons to allowi



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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