Friction on the front lines: Pentagon opens new territory to women in military

Fernanda Chamorro/Sun Star Reporter
April 3, 2012

Cadet Samantha Bernette searches cadet Raye Diamond for any weapons or significant items at an ROTC training mission on Sept. 24, 2011. Diamond is playing the role of a Taliban member to test cadet skills. Fernanda Chamorro/Sun Star

The Pentagon has spoken on the issue of women serving in combat, and is willing to open up more doors. Yet in the military the question persists whether women should be, in the words of Army Specialist David Alexander, among the “boots on the ground – the first people to make contact with an opposing force.”

With additional military jobs for women on the way that could place them on the front lines, many doors are formally opening. But women have yet to be cleared for combat, and skepticism remains among men ranging from Fort Wainwright-based soldiers like Alexander to Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

“I do have concerns about women in frontline combat,” former Senator Santorum told CNN. “I think that could be a very compromising situation where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interests of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved.”

Male skepticism is no less potent when it arises more from chivalry than from outright hostility.  “I’ve personally been treated almost like a daughter by some of my leaders,” said Stephanie Parker, University of Alaska Fairbanks Reserve Officers Training Corps cadet captain. “I think that’s just a natural male reaction to females in hostile environments, to want to protect females because they feel like females can’t always fully protect themselves.”

Women have been attached to battalions, but they have not been officially assigned to them. A new policy is expected to change this, opening 14,000 extra military jobs – mostly in the Army – for women by formally assigning them to battalions, according to the Pentagon.

In modern warfare, troops rarely face each other head on. Cavalry and infantry charges have given way to ambushes. Thus women are already at risk any time they step outside their bases. Yet women have yet to be cleared for frontline combat as members of the special operations forces or infantry.

They’ll get closer to where the firing is going on in the jobs of tank and armored troop carrier mechanic, artillery radar operator and rocket launcher crew member, which the new policy will open to women this spring.

Concerns continue to arise when women and combat are used in the same sentence even though, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly 75 percent of Americans think that women should be allowed to serve in combat units with men.

From rejection by other cultures to sexual harassment, from physical weakness to menstrual cycle effects, some male military members remain tentative about women soldiers in combat.

“Being a male in the military, I wouldn’t want to climb a mountain and get to the very top and look back and not have a female battle buddy beside me because she was unable to keep up,” Alexander, now serving with the military police in Afghanistan, said in a phone interview on his last day of rest and recuperation at Fort Wainwright.

There are other kinds of strength. A recent study in the journal BioEssays suggests women may even have a genetic advantage that keeps them from becoming ill as easily as men. Women have greater capacity to fight infection, according to the study.

Staff Sgt. Jaime Hernandez of Fort Wainwright recalled seeing “hard core” Canadian women at Fort Irwin, Calif., carrying machine guns.

“If I ever get a female that is the same as the ones I saw, I wouldn’t mind,” Hernandez said. “I mean, I don’t understand how come they don’t give them a chance.” Like any infantryman, he said, female soldiers just need to be able to “shoot, move and communicate.”

Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel and Australia are among countries that allow women to take on dangerous roles. Yet in the United States, concerns about women’s ability to handle their emotions often come up.

Alexander of the military police said men believe that a woman receives better treatment in the military because “she’s a female and she’s emotional, versus a male that should be able to control his emotions. It’s a double standard.”

Sgt. Hernandez shared a different view. “We have guys that are emotionally weak, too,” he said. “So no one’s perfect. When emotions hit, they hit.”

The fact that men are usually raised to believe that they should protect women plays a role in the gender division. Some male soldiers mentioned that they feel more inclined to save a woman than a man— sometimes simply due to the belief that a man is more likely than a woman to survive if left behind.

Fort Wainwright Staff Sgt. Nahum Berrios noted that many men still recognize women as the child bearers. He said he could not imagine having to tell a female soldier’s children that their mother had died in war.

Sexual entanglement remains a concern for military personnel, whether women are serving on the front lines or in more traditional support roles. Some men mentioned that when things are difficult back at home, it can be tempting to find comfort from a sympathetic woman colleague.

Still, that’s only a possibility and not a given, according to Hernandez, who said Canadian female and male soldiers slept in the same tents and changed in front of each other. When he asked a Canadian male soldier how he felt about that, the man responded, “Ah, nobody cares, she’s part of us, one of us.”

Most men interviewed also brought up women’s menstrual cycle as a health/hygienic and emotional issue.

“I don’t want to be on the battlefield and then have her happy one day and have her cycle hit and then she’s a completely different person,” Alexander said. “So that’s why I’d rather have a person more consistent in their behavior.”

Due to all of these concerns, women are separated from the men in important ways. While women may move by air or ground to their attached battalions to provide assistance or in emergencies, they are not allowed to go out on patrol serving as infantry, armor, or special operation forces.

While men actually go outside the forward operating bases daily and deal with the local government, face enemies, and handle things hands on, women are more likely to remain at the FOBs “looking at things through a computer or TV screen,” Alexander said.

The new policy focuses on changing some of these regulations.

These days, though, there’s a need for more women to form female engagement teams. Members take part in talking to women in the Afghan villages and conducting pat-downs for weapon searches. The Army Special Operations Command is currently looking for female soldiers.

While the women selected will not go through infantry or Special Forces training, they must have the capability of carrying 35 pounds for six miles in one hour and 39 minutes. They need expertise with the M4 assault rifle and the M9 pistol.

The Pentagon is also expected to open up an extra one percent of military jobs for women this year though the exact types of positions have yet to be disclosed. All of the men interviewed seemed to agree that if a woman could pull her own weight, then she had a right to serve among men in the same combat zone.

ROTC cadet Parker knows that the struggle to persuade men to accept women in combat will be a difficult one, she said. “This could be intimidating for them, that a female could potentially do their challenging job just like they can,” she said.

Time will tell if women are capable of performing to the high physical and professional level required in combat. “Some women, just like some men, don’t want to get their hands dirty,” said Patricia McMurphy, a Fort Wainwright MP Public Affairs Officer.

“They want the easy, stress-free jobs, and that’s okay, that’s the way they are,” she said. But that sort of behavior is by no means a female monopoly, she said. “People are people,” McMurphy said. “Man or woman, it doesn’t matter.”

For soldiers such as ROTC cadet Parker, the obstacles to proving that assertion true are straightforward. “I think being a female in the Army is a hard task in general,” she said, “because you’re joining a society that’s predominately male. So, going in, you should know that there will be challenges like this and the only way to avoid any challenges is to act as professional as possible.”

Meanwhile there’s one benefit of women taking up more dangerous jobs in war on which most of the interviewees seemed to agree: It’s “more boots on the ground,” Alexander said.


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