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Thursday, January 24, 2013

What It’s Really Like To Be A Woman In Combat

Spc. Sarah Sutphin removes her new body armor, designed to fit  women's physiques, after training on a firing range in September 2012 in Fort Campbell, Ky. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Spc. Sarah Sutphin removes her new body armor, designed to fit women’s physiques, after training on a firing range in September 2012 in Fort Campbell, Ky. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Leon Panetta has been defense secretary for only 18 months, but he is already leaving a major legacy.

He oversaw the dismantling of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and is now removing the 1994 ban on woman serving in combat.

Women have unofficially been in combat for decades, with nearly 900 women wounded and 152 killed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lifting of the ban prompted one male Marine to ask, in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, whether the government has considered the humiliating situations that combat troops often find themselves in on the battlefield, where troops have little personal space.

We spoke with Tanya Biank, author of “Undaunted: The Real Story of America’s Servicewomen in Today’s Military,” and Maj. Candice Frost, a West Point graduate who has been in the Army for 15 years and served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Interview Highlights

Maj. Candice Frost served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army)

Maj. Candice Frost served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army)

Maj. Candice Frost responds to concerns that women cannot physically do what men do:

“I had some outstanding soldiers who served for me when I was a company commander. And some of my soldiers did an outstanding job with rucksacks just as heavy as their male peers’. And were able to climb many of the same mountains, walk in the same footsteps that those male soldiers did. And were able to collect vital intelligence that served and actually saved lives of American soldiers and targeted Taliban forces. So I can say proudly that I have served with many women who have walked in those same footsteps of their male peers.”

Frost responds to claims that mixed gender situations in unhygienic and close quarters would be uncomfortable and distract from the mission:

“When you’re on a convoy and you’re driving hours and hours at a time, you’re at a point of exhaustion where it doesn’t matter the gender, you just have to use the bathroom. The Army figures out ways, and we’re pretty inventive on where we can choose to defecate or choose to use the bathroom… When you’re in the middle of combat at a point of exhaustion and you’re tired and you have to strip down and change your clothes, really, I don’t think at that point you’re not looking around to even think of those barriers at the time. You just are so focused on the mission, and I know that so many of my male counterparts were able to do that on many of the convoys I was. They saw me as a solider. They saw me as an officer. They didn’t see me as a female… and I didn’t feel those prejudices at all.”

Tanya Biank is author of "Undaunted: The Real Story of America's Servicewomen." (Cathy Meals)

Tanya Biank is author of “Undaunted: The Real Story of America’s Servicewomen.” (Cathy Meals)

Tanya Biank responds to concerns that allowing women in the military is a form of social experimentation:

“I would like to think that the military realized the time is now for change… There have always been critics and controversy surround servicewomen and change. I’m sure critics in 1967 were against lifting the ban against women rising above the rank of lieutenant colonel. I’m sure there were critics who did not want women to enter the service academies in 1976. I don’t think this has to do with social experimentation, because the stakes are too high. The reason, I believe [the military is lifting the ban on women in combat], is because of the performance of servicewomen in ground combat over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have performed phenomenally. They have done more than just pull their own weight.”


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  • http://www.facebook.com/arttoegemann Art Toegemann

    This isn’t what women, or we, need.
    To level the playing field, women need to be required to register for the Selective Service at the age of 18, just like males. That women are not now so required is held against them, a disparity no amount of combat corrects. This is a silent cheat.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000884786 Navin R Johnson

       I have been thinking about Art’s statement, and I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t make any sense.

  • Ambari

    The great equalizer for women.
    Now they get their chance to kill for Uncle Sam or Corporate America.
    Go for it ladies. I suppose the Pentagon is gearing up for many more “wars” to go after the natural resources of other countries  for its consumer culture back in the USA.

    I recall the bumper sticker I had on my vehicles back in the early 1980′s is still relevant today.

    Join the Army,   travel to exotic, distant lands, meet exciting and unusual  people and kill them. 

  • J Frog

    I guess the question is whether physical strength is a necessary requirement for the battlefield?  If so, a fit 130 lb fit woman is at a distinct disadvantage to a fit 185 lb man…both genetically and by the laws of physics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1505097521 Jennifer Michael Hazelman

    This is logistically impossible.  Young soldiers and airman are not mature enough to avoid the relationships and sexual issues that would come from this.  As a past soldier, the sexual inuendo and behaviors in the enlisted ranks is huge.  I don’t see how you can expect an 18 year old young man coming out of high school with his raging hormones to avoid the conflict and flirting that would insue.  I am talking front line; intra mingled units out in the field.  Not talking pilots or other command roles; but front line units.  As a military wife back home; the stress is bad enough.  Having females out in these types of close quarters living together with men would make me absolutely stressed out. 
    If a woman is in a position where she is getting shot at or bombed, pay her and award her for that work; but unless you will have all female units this is a bad idea.

  • Ceelady12

    Hearing men soldiers complain that a woman would be a distraction on the field of combat reminds me of the conservative religious faiths that sequester women because men find their thoughts going to women and not to higher, more spiritual planes. I say women should be able to do and be their best, wherever they are, and men can get over themselves.

  • Josh LaWarre

    I applaud the decision to allow females in combat. Is there going to be a corresponding change to physical fitness requirements in order to ensure that females are capable of the physical demands of the job?

  • Alex

    Special operation training (SEALs, Green Beret, Rangers, Combat Controller etc.) should be available for women as well. However they should train alongside other women. Same standards and same jobs upon graduation as the men.

  • Darksidekilo6

    I agree with Art Toegeman in that if women want the opportunity to serve in front line combat positions then they also must be required to register with the selective service and, if need be, be drafted into front line combat positions when the nation calls.  You can’t have it both ways.  If women want the opportunity they must also be willing to share in the requirement.

    On another note, during the radio show Ms. Young mentioned that the american public is already accustomed to seeing female war casualties.  I would completely disagree with this statement.  We may be hearing a lot about them but we are definitely not “seeing” them.  I would venture to say that if we were, we might think differently.  I cannot ever recall seeing a female casualty on any of the major American main stream media magazines nor have I ever seen a picture in any of the major American newspapers.  The same cannot be said for the abundance of male casualties that litter Google and every other website that peddles in war images.  None are acceptable but I would contend that seeing a female casualty with half of her head blown off or her dead, burned, and mutilated body hanging from a bridge would not invoke the same emotion as a male casualty.

    Additionally, I challenge everyone thinking about this issue to study the history of war and what happens to women in war.  The saying “to the victor goes the spoils” should get you started.  However, in today’s conflicts it is the loser that is looking for ways to spoil our victory.  Throughout the history of warfare women captured by the enemy have been used to satisfy there sexual desires and to pollute the gene pool of the losing nation.  Is this the opportunity we want for women of our society just so that they have a better chance at becoming a General Officer.

    Since the Persian Gulf War, there have been three confirmed and documented U.S. female POW’s.  Of those three 1 has confirmed that she was raped by her captors and one wrote a book that alluded to possible rape.  The one that confirmed the rape is Major Rhonda Cornum.   She told a Presidential Commission on women in the military that she was “violated manually — vaginally and rectally.”

    Finally, I would ask that everyone consider the role that women have played in human civilization.  They are givers of life not takers.  They are the foundation of all moral and just societies.  As a combat infantryman I cannot imagine my reaction to seeing a female casualty on the battlefield.  We as a society do not prepare are sons to treat women as equal in conflict resolution situations.  We are taught to protect them.  You cannot expect the military to undo 17-18 years worth of upbringing.  Conversely, we as a society do not prepare are daughters for the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of war.  And it is foolish to believe that the military can change what nature and nurture have created.

    Ponder these questions as you ask yourself what our society is doing to prepare women for combat.

    1.  Would you be ok with a fist fight happening between a young adolescent girl and a boy?  Would it matter who started the fight?  What if your son was a witness to the fight who do you think he would be more likely to come to the aid of?
    2.  Would you be ok with girls playing Pop Warner or Pee Wee football with boys?  What about high school football, college football, or the NFL?
    3.  Would you be ok with a man boxing a women assuming they are in the same weight category?
    4.  Would you be ok with unisex restrooms in all primary schools?  What about showers?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000884786 Navin R Johnson

      “You can’t have it both ways.  If women want the opportunity they must also be willing to share in the requirement.”

      Again, this logic makes no sense.  Serving in combat as a volunteer is certainly not an opportunity, we should be thankful we have women willing to volunteer for this activity.  Just because Women as a group aren’t registered for selective service is irrelevant, just like Selective Service has become irrelevant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000884786 Navin R Johnson

    Regarding the questions of physical ability, I am sure there is an overlap of the strongest/most athletic females and the weakest/least athletic males.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/LindaWattsMacDonald Linda MacDonald

    Art and Darkside seem to think that women would fight having to sign up for selective service. I thought it was wrong that only my son had to register but my daughters didn’t even though I didn’t want any of them to be drafted if there was a draft.

     Certainly women should have to register for selective service and that requirement should be changed.  But-I would rather the whole thing be scrapped.

    I also have questions about the standards that everyone seems to think should be the “male” standard. Is the standard set to ensure that we have the people who are in the best physical shape possible or is the standard set because of the requirements of the job?

    And are these standards that you have to meet every year (the same standards) or are these standards that you only have to meet once for entry?

  • http://www.facebook.com/LindaWattsMacDonald Linda MacDonald

    ..and Darkside–as for rape in war. Have you seen the documentary about the rapes committed by our own military against women in the military?

    I think women who enlist in the military should be aware of the risks-just like men-and we should trust that they are making that decision full cognizant of those risks. 

  • Trevor Wells

    As long as women who elect to be in combat units are explicitly made aware that if they are captured, they will be raped/gang-raped on a daily basis, i.e. they sign a statement, I have no issue with them being able to be in a combat unit.  As a nation, however, I do not think that we are ready for this inevitable eventuality.

    • Reverie

      “women who elect to be in combat units are explicitly made aware that if they are captured, they will be raped/gang-raped on a daily basis” – And this is different to the treatment received by some captured men how, exactly?

  • Former Marine

    I know for a fact women would be a distraction in infantry units. Being prior Marine Corps Infantry, the thought of going through my combat deployment with even one female in or unit would have been a disaster! In a general statement most women can not carry me in my full combat load weighing in at just over 300lbs, and I am one of the smaller guys! She would have felt harrased, by what we talked about, the way we acted,  but by the looks she would have nodoubtly attacted. Another thing I think would be disturbing is the hygene issue, I know it has been talked about but have people really thought about it, and what women need to do once a month. What happens when they dont get to shower for months at a time? Because like many others I to had to go without a shower for months at a time, and I know how dirty and nasty it really is, so dirty you cammie bottoms stand on their is that even safe for a women to do the same? Another thought what about a mans natural instinct to protect? As a husband and a father I know the feeling of wanting to protect and as men in general the urge to protect a woman would distract you fromher male counter part! Personally I would react to a woman’s plea for hlep faster that a man’s, its the same as a reaction to a baby cry and a mother need to tend to that baby. I also agree with the selective service issue, we have to register and if they want to kick down doors next to me on the front line than they need to aswell!

    • Ninap145

      Baby wipes!

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