Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My 2 cents worth on women in combat

SGT Jennifer Peters of the 186th MP Company, training in 2008.

Much ballyhoo and controversy got stirred up like the proverbial hornet's nest last week when outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Joint Chiefs of Staff was lifting the ban on women serving in combat roles in the military.

Within minutes of the announcement the Blogosphere and Twitterverse lit up like a bonfire with people throwing around opinion grenades based sometimes on nothing more than knee-jerk reactions, misogynistic and anachronistic thinking, and deep-seeded feelings on traditional gender roles.

Women in combat is nothing new, actually. One of the most celebrated figures in the histories of the British Isles was Boudica, the warrior queen of the Iceni Celts who led an uprising against the Romans. In WW2, some of the best Soviet snipers were women. Over in Israel women serve right alongside the men.

Panetta's move expands the Pentagon's action nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army. This decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women. Now, this isn’t going to happen overnight. The Pentagon & the various services still have to figure out which jobs and when they will open to women, and whether or not those slots really will include Special Operations jobs in units like the Navy’s SEALs or even Delta Force counter-terror units.

I speak from the experiences of having been a soldier and having served alongside of (and been commanded by) women. No, I was not an infantry soldier living in a foxhole for days on end. I was not cooped up inside the hull of a tank or 300 feet under the sea in a submarine. Male veterans and current servicemembers in such roles have bemoaned long & loud about women either not being able to do their strenuous and stressful jobs or complicating matters a thousandfold should they join their units.

No, I was a military police soldier. From Day One of my basic training and segue into MP school, my training was fully integrated. My 200-troop training company had 3 platoons of male recruits and one platoon of females. The basic reasoning, as I fathomed it, was that the Army wanted us male troops to see first-hand that the women were receiving the exact same police and combat training that we were, from the same instructors in the same classrooms and on the same field ranges. That way, if and when we got paired up with female patrol partners or fire-team members in a real-world environment, we knew they had the same training we did and could back us up just the same as a male troop. While on active duty I worked side by side with many women MP soldiers, and in my last unit not only was my assistant squad leader a women, but so was my final company commander. Some people might think of MP's as non-combat troops, but they would be very, very wrong.

Ladies & gentlemen, we need to stop thinking of war as a front-lines and rear-area thing. We tend to maintain that World War Two mentality of a linear battlefield with a distinct Forward Edge of the Battle Area, a front line of foxholes and trenches and infantry units trading rifle fire and bayonet charges with their opposite numbers, side by side with tanks in support, and the supply and medical and artillery units miles behind the lines, and other support units even farther back "in the rear with the gear". Today's battle zone is just that, an entire zone where you could be shot at or blown up from every possible angle by people in or out of a uniform. When you're fighting an enemy with a mentality that more often than not treats their own women as not much more than housepets, they don't bat an eye when it comes to killing a female soldier.

And whether it's from a bullet in a direct firefight, from an IED explosion, or from getting shot down, dead is still dead at the hands of the enemy.

If you don't think women are already actively serving in combat roles in the combat zone, you're sadly mistaken. If you think women haven't fought alongside men in our current combat actions, tell that to Crystal Davis, a track mechanic and vehicle recovery specialist with the 54th Engineer Company, who lost a leg when an Iraqi IED blew up her up-armored wrecker in 2006.

Crystal Davis

Tell it to Sue Downes of the 554th MP Company, who lost both legs when an IED blew up the vehicle she was in while on a humanitarian mission to deliver food to a remote Afghan village in 2006.

Sue Downes
Tell it to Danielle Greene-Byrd, a basketball star and 1999 graduate of Notre Dame, who spent two years as a teacher before enlisting. In 2004, with the 571st MP Company, she was hit by an RPG while returning fire from a rooftop of an Iraqi police station . Immediatly her heart sank thinking about her lost wedding rings (she just got married two weeks earlier while on a brief visit home). Her comrades returned to the rooftop where she was hit to find her severed hand buried under several inches of sand. They later slipped her recovered wedding rings onto her remaining right hand. 

Danielle Greene Byrd
Tell it to West Point graduate Dawn Halfaker of the 293d MP Company, who lost her arm to an RPG in an ambush in Baqubah, Iraq in June, 2004.

Dawn Halfaker
Tell it to Kendra Coleman, an MP with the 173d Airborne Brigade Combat Team who suffered a TBI and lost her leg to an IED while clearing a village on a patrol in Afghanistan, May 11, 2010. A month earlier she'd received a TBI from another IED explosion but chose to stay in the combat zone instead of being redeployed.

Kendra Coleman

Tell it to Marissa Strock of the 170th MP Company, who lost her legs on a mission to find a mass grave in November 2005, when her Humvee hit an IED made up of four 155mm artillery rounds in the Triangle of Death area of southern Baghdad.

Marissa Strock
Tell it to Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs when the Blackhawk she was piloting was downed by an RPG on November 12, 2004. In case you've been living under a rock, Tammy Duckworth is also a Democrat member of the United States Congress from Illinois.

Tammy Duckworth. I may not agree with her politics but we both bleed Army green.

If you think women haven't fought alongside men in our current combat actions, tell that to the family of SGT Donna Johnson of the 514th MP Company, killed by a suicide bomber who rammed a motorcycle packed with explosives into her joint U.S.-Afghan patrol in Khost, Afghanistan on October 1st, 2012.

Donna Johnson. Yes, that's a combat action badge on her uniform, because she'd been in COMBAT.
 Tell it to the family of Kimberly Hampton , the company commander of D troop 1/17th Cavalry. Hampton died when the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter she was flying was shot down near Fallujah, Iraq on January 2, 2004. Captain Hampton was the first female military pilot in United States history to be shot down and killed as a result of hostile fire.

Kimberly Hampton
Tell it to the family of Michelle Witmer of the 32d MP Company, killed in Iraq on April 9, 2004. Her twin sister was serving as a medic with the 118th Medical BN and her other sister was also with the 32d at the same time.

The Witmer sisters
Tell it to the family of Rachel Bosveld of the 527th MP Company, who had already survived being hit by an RPG, who was killed October 26th of 2003 in a mortar attack on a Baghdad police station.

Rachel Bosveld
Tell it to the family of Lori Piestawa from the 507th  Maintenance Company, who died while in captivity at the hands of Iraqi insurgents after convoy ambush in Nasariyah on March 23, 2003.

Lori Piestewa
Tell it to retired SFC Max Voelz, whose wife SSG Kimberly Voelz of the 703d EOD Company died in her husband’s arms on December 14, 2003 after an IED she was disarming blew up in Iskandariyah . They were serving together in the same unit.

Max Voelz

Kim Voelz
Tell it to the family of Nichole M. Frye, of Company A, 415th Civil Affairs Battalion, killed when an IED hit her vehicle in a convoy in Baqubah, Iraq on February 6, 2004.

Tell it to the family of Holly J. McGeogh, a mechanic with Company A, 4th Forward Support Battalion, killed when an IED hit her vehicle on January 31, 2004 outside Kirkuk, Iraq.

Tell it to the family of CW5 Sharon T. Swartworth, a 26-year veteran on one last mission for the Pentagon headquarters of the Judge Advocate General Office, killed when the helicopter she was in was shot down on November 7, 2003 near Tikrit, Iraq.

Tell it to the family of Karina S. Lau, a communications specialist with the 16th Signal Battalion, killed on November 2, 2003 when the helicopter she was in was shot down near Fallujah, Iraq. Also on that helicopter was Frances M. Vega, a personnel specialist with the 151st Adjutant General Postal Detachment 3, so tell it to her family too.

Tell it to the family of Analaura Esparza Gutierrez, of A Company, 4th Forward Support Battalion, killed on October 1,2003 when an IED hit the vehicle she was in near Tikrit, Iraq.

Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.

Women have been seeing combat action for a long time now. Back in December of 1989, Captain Linda Bray, commanding officer of the 988th MP Company became the first woman to lead U.S. troops in battle when she engaged in a firefight with an elite Panamanian Special Forces unit inside a military barracks and dog kennel. Bray and 45 soldiers under her command, nearly all of them men, got into an extended three-hour infantry-style firefight. Her troops killed three of the enemy and took one prisoner before the rest were forced to flee, leaving behind a cache of grenades, assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The Americans suffered no casualties.

Linda Bray on active duty.

 Linda  Bray in her home on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Clemmons, NC. Hanging on the wall are bayonets taken from AK-47s captured during the attack along with her MP brassard. 

 On the modern battlefield, women are often right there in the mix, and in many cases are out on patrols with the same infantry soldiers who claim they shouldn't be in combat or can't hack it in combat units. For those who doubt that women can hack it, I'd like to point them in the direction of Monica Lin Brown, a combat medic who earned a Silver Star, our nation's third highest award for valor, presented by Vice President Dick Cheney. After a roadside bomb detonated near a convoy of Humvees in the eastern Paktia Province of Afghanistan, Brown saved the lives of fellow soldiers in April 2007 by running through insurgent gunfire using her body to shield wounded soldiers while mortar rounds fell nearby and ammunition in the vehicles exploded all around her. At the time of her combat action, Monica was still about 6 weeks shy of her 19th birthday. She was born on May 24th, 1988, which was 4 days shy of my 19th birthday and 6 days after I graduated from Military Police School.

Monica Brown, combat medic (emphasis on the "combat") and Silver Star recipient.

For those who don't think women can hang on patrol, tell that to Army Reserve Captain Katherine Jenerette, a friend of mine I met through Facebook when she was running for Congress. A veteran of the first Gulf War in 1991, Katherine has more parachute jumps than most men I know. Her husband is a retired Major and one of her four kids is also a soldier. Her dad was career military. It runs in the family, of that we can be certain. As a Civil Affairs officer in Afghanistan, Katherine went out on patrol with infantry units of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team on her deployment last year in the Panjawi District of Kandahar Province.

Katherine Jenerette on patrol.
CNN recently profiled another Civil Affairs soldier, Kimberly Bratic, who went on 70 missions in Afghanistan with the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Read her story here.

Look, I've heard the arguments against women serving in combat roles. I've heard the argument about whether a petite 120-pound girl loaded down with 70 pounds of gear will be able to carry a 200-pound wounded male soldier to safety. When I enlisted, I showed up to basic training barely 140 pounds and not much over five feet eight. Would I have been able to drag a dude that size to safety? Maybe, maybe not. I probably would have gotten a second body to help, or just sucked it up and done the mission. I was asked today whether I thought a woman would be able to hoist up and slam a round into the breech of the main gun on an M-1 Abrams tank. I think so. A 120mm tank round weighs 19kg, or just about 42 pounds.

Infantry grunts under fire are always happy to look up and see an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt overhead raining death & destruction on the bad guys. In many cases, those pilots saving their infantry asses are women. And that, friends, is combat.

Kim Campbell surveys the damage to her A-10 after a mission in Iraq in 2003 that earned her a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Yeah, yeah, women could end up pregnant. It happens. It happens in non-combat units too. You hope that your troops are responsible and mature and professional enough to keep it in their pants but...You put young, physically active people in close proximity to each other with little outlet for recreation, and invariably and inevitably people get naked. It happens in college. It happens in high school.

Should all military jobs be open to women? I'm not 100% sure actually. Despite my Army service, I have had close ties with the Navy submarine community most of my life. I am not exactly in favor of women crewmembers on subs. It's not that I think they couldn't perform the tasks of being a submariner, not at all. I'm thinking of the logistics involved in taking a small, cramped steel tube where sleeping space and toilet space is already microscopic and then having to divide that up even more to accommodate separate but equal facilities for female crew. I've been on a couple of Los Angeles-class subs and it was less than spacious in there. However, it seems that the women who have opted for submarine service are adjusting well.

Like I said, I served right alongside women for my entire enlistment and found them by and large to be just as competent as male soldiers. I knew good female troops and bad, good male troops and bad. Time will tell if integrating combat units will work or is even a good idea. Remember; 60-some odd years ago people tried to argue against integrating black soldiers into regular Army units too. It took some time to work out the kinks but in the end it worked out for the good of everyone involved.

Command Sergeant Major Angi Gordon. We served together in the same unit as E-4s and she went on to achieve the Army's highest enlisted rank before retiring. The MP community in the Army is pretty small and you have to be in the highest percentiles of soldiering to make E-9 in our field.

Angi on deployment in Afghanistan. The guy on the right in the picture is Master Sergeant Stan Smith. Stan was my neighbor at Fort Riley when we were both E-4's.

A senior military official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15. Stay tuned for updates.


jay son said...

combat is not linear, but rather multidimensional, on that we agree. but i do not believe in my heart that women can slug it out in the combat arms branches on a daily basis. it's fucking tough, we both know that from the comparatively short we spent in the field.

strong argument however, very well thought out. also a nice picture of stan.

Opus #6 said...

Well-written post. Lovely pictures.

I would like to know more about how the former ban affected women and why it needed to be removed, if these ladies are already doing what you say they are.

Also, how does this affect elite units? Is it another way for Obama to weaken the U.S. military?

svarbel said...

Ski, as usual you have nailed it. My only concern is that if you are going to allow women in the combat branches (Infantry, Armor, and Artillery) that they MUST pass the same physical standards as the men. The same amount (and style) of pushups, situps, and time on their runs. One standard for all. You and I both knew MP's of both sexes that you could count on and NOT count on. Gender was never a factor. I actually preferred a female partner when performing DLO duties. Where you will find problems for women in infantry units will come from health issues. I can remember finding field dressings missing due to lack of feminine hygene products being available. Sexual activities WILL take place even if the only available area is the 4 holer at 02:30. I believe that male, female, straight, gay or whatever should be able to "Be all you can be" provided thet everyone has the same standards. If you can't meet those standards, do something else to contribute. Steven.

Brooke said...

Bravo, sir. Bravo. You have cut through all the b.s. I've been hearing from both sides.