Truman National Security Project

Women in Combat: What it Means for the Military

female soldiers push-ups
By Truman Project Staff | 1.30.13
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Editor’s Note: Kayla Williams and Jennifer Hunt, both former military servicemembers, have contributed this post to The Truman Doctrine.

By now you have probably heard that the Secretary of Defense announced an end to the ban on women in combat. But what does that actually mean? We’ve tackled some frequently asked questions on the topic below.

 Aren’t women already in combat?

Yes. The nature of warfare today is that there are no front lines. Women who serve in Afghanistan and who served in Iraq often faced the same risks of being attacked by the enemy as their male counterparts. More than 280,000 American women servicemembers have deployed in the past decade; more than 150 have died and more than 800 have received the Purple Heart in connection with wounds suffered on the field of battle. This change brings policy in line with reality.

If women are already in combat, what does this change? In 1994, the Department of Defense enacted the “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule,” which barred women from ground combat jobs (such as the infantry and artillery) and from being assigned to “units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” By rescinding that rule, Panetta is opening the door for women troops to be assigned to jobs and units from which they were previously excluded and allowing military units to have the best people on their teams regardless of gender.

If women are already in combat, why is this a big deal?

Lifting this policy could open more than 200,000 new positions to women in the military. Rescinding the rule also allows commanders to assign women to units where they are needed, rather than temporarily attaching them, which created confusion and muddled chains of command. The change both acknowledges on-the-ground reality and significantly expands women’s opportunities.

Are we going to see women on Seal Team 6 tomorrow?

Not likely! The services have several months in which to decide whether or not to request that certain jobs still be closed to women based on “rigorous analysis of factual data regarding the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for the position.” Positions in Special Forces may be on such a list. After determining which jobs will be opened, implementation will take place over several years; complete implementation isn’t expected until 2015.

What about sexual harassment and assault?

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey believes that lifting the ban on women in combat jobs could actually reduce sexual harassment and assault in the military: “when you have one part of the population that is designated as ‘warriors’ and one part that is designated as something else, that disparity begins to establish a psychology that, in some cases, led to that environment. I have to believe the more we treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

What about women’s physical limitations?

The combat exclusion policy put gender above the qualifications of both men and women: it was assumed that all men and no women who were fit enough for military service were also fit enough for combat arms jobs. Rescinding the ban allows a more holistic approach to finding qualified personnel: physical readiness as well as knowledge, skills, and achievements will all be factors in determining ability. GEN Cone, commanding general of TRADOC (the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command), explained that the Army will develop tests for the physical demands of combat jobs (for example, possibly lifting an artillery round for artillery jobs), and both men and women will be required to pass those tests. General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been quite clear that the new standards will be gender-neutral.

Did civilians force this on the military?

Although President Obama issued a statement supporting the move, Secretary Panetta made this decision upon the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom are uniformed servicemembers.

Are men and women going to have to shower together now?

The majority of positions in the military are already open to women; issues regarding privacy have already been successfully resolved. Women even serve on submarines. Ways to address common hygiene concerns are also being fielded; the Army is testing body armor better suited to female bodies. Proven solutions to many challenges simply need to be expanded.

Kayla Williams is a former sergeant and linguist in a military intelligence company of the US Army. She is the author of a memoir, Love My Rifle More Than You, and she serves as a Truman National Security Project Fellow and on the Army Education Advisory Committee.

SSG Jennifer Hunt has served in the Army Reserve as a Civil Affairs Specialist for eleven years. She has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, where she was awarded the Combat Action Badge and the Purple Heart.