Thursday is an important deadline for the U.S. military. It is the cut-off date for any branch or sub-branch of the armed forces to seek an exemption from using women in front-line combat.

Unless a military branch gets that exemption, it will have to open all its military positions to females as of Jan. 1.

Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 20013 officially lifted the ban on women serving in ground combat roles. The military has been rushing ever since to prepare for this historic change.

Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro is one of the first females to graduate from the Marine Infantry Training Battalion.
Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro is one of the first females to graduate from the Marine Infantry Training Battalion. Sgt. Tyler L. Main/U.S. Marine Corps

I will be watching closely to see what happens. I have always believed that if women want to do be in front-line fighting units and they have the qualifications, they should be allowed to go into combat.

But it is not an easy issue. It is going to take time for the combat integration to be done right and not end in failure that would have critics chortling, “see, women were unfit for the challenge.”

Plenty of countries are allowing women to hold any military job they can handle physically and mentally.

Opposition continues to come from male critics who argue that females don’t have the muscle or stamina for sustained combat. Other opponents suggest that a male soldier might unnecessarily expose himself to fire in order to protect a female colleague. Anyone who has been in combat realizes that’s a dumb assumption. But it persists.

There is the question of aggression. A recent study by the U.S. Marines says women are slower when it comes to pulling the trigger in an armed confrontation.

That came out in the Marines Force Integration Plan Summary, which highlights the results of an experimental, volunteer, mixed-gender unit the Marines put together last year.

Another finding in the Marines’ summary was that women troops suffered more injuries than men.

Experts Don’t Agree

Jane Patterson of the Service Women’s Action Network called the study, “a skewed attempt to set the stage for the Marine Corps to request an exemption to the Department of Defense mandate for full combat integration.”

Patterson says the Marines’ study is skewed because it used average female troops rather than high-performing Marine women volunteers who would be the kind of women expected to step up to the challenge.

Patterson’s non-profit organization advocates on behalf of U.S. servicewomen and women veterans.

Not all women, even women soldiers, support the idea of females marching forward into battle with the infantry.

Cpl. Lisa M. Bodenburg, a UH-1N crew chief with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, prepares before taking off on an aerial reconnaissance mission.
Cpl. Lisa M. Bodenburg, a UH-1N crew chief with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, prepares before taking off on an aerial reconnaissance mission. Sgt. Fredrick J. Coleman/U.S. Marine Corps

Julie Pulley, a former Army captain and airborne soldier in the Army’s Second Infantry Division Support Command, wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal in which she worries about women being allowed to fight in the infantry.

West Point graduate Pulley says, “First, opening the infantry to women necessitates revisiting Rostker v. Goldberg, the 1981 Supreme Court ruling that only men are required to register for the draft.”

Pulley argues, “If the infantry is compelled to include women, the argument against women registering for the draft will be invalidated. If women are to be treated equally and serve in the infantry, shouldn’t they be drafted into the infantry at an equal rate?”

“The exclusion of women from combat in the United States and elsewhere has persisted primarily because of myths and stereotypes.” — Megan McKenzie, University of Sydney

Pulley wonders if women infantry members will be able to haul the full weight of combat gear. She points to a study that says the average fighting load carried by an infantry rifleman operating in Afghanistan was 63 pounds before adding a rucksack. The average approach-march load in combat, which includes a light rucksack, was 96 pounds. The average emergency-approach-march load, which includes a larger rucksack, was 127 pounds.

She wonders if, with such physical pressures, women could perform as well as men.

Megan McKenzie of the University of Sydney and author of “Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight,” says most arguments against women on front lines are nonsense.

She’s written that “The exclusion of women from combat in the United States and elsewhere has persisted primarily because of myths and stereotypes associated with female and male capabilities and the military’s ‘band of brothers’ culture.”

When Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver made it though Army Ranger School last month, it once again called attention to the question of what roles women would be allowed to take once combat positions open to them in January.

Israel a Model for Inclusion

Plenty of countries are allowing women to hold any military job they can handle physically and mentally.

Australia has opened up infantry, artillery and Special Forces to females. Canada allows women in front-line infantry units and aboard submarines, and has long had women in command of warships.

Denmark has been a leader in female inclusion. The one exception is the country’s Special Operations Forces. It claims women cannot meet the demanding physical requirements.

We’ve had a tough time getting to the coming Jan. 1 inclusionary date and no one is really sure how it will go.

It’s interesting that women can serve in front-line combat units in France but most choose not to. They are still excluded there from submarines and the special riot-control police force.

Israel has allowed women to serve in combat-tested units since 1985. It is the model for inclusion.

And 14 years ago, Germany opened all its combat units to females.

We’ve had a tough time getting to the coming Jan. 1 inclusionary date and no one is really sure how it will go. But I hope the branches don’t ask for exemptions Thursday. 

I like the attitude of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who will have to give the okay if the Marines seek an exemption.

Mabus says he wants all Navy and Marines positions open to women who can meet the standards and he supports Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert’s statement that the Navy would not seek an exemption for its legendary SEAL teams.

The time has come for the test of American women in combat roles.

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