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Women in combat: US military on verge of making it official

Women in combat: De facto warriors in Afghanistan and Iraq, women are now closer than ever to the "profession of combat arms." The US military is opening jobs to them closer to the battlefield, and they are pushing to abolish job limits through legal battles.

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"The answer to that is very straightforward: Create a physical fitness standard," says Coughlin. "That's all the litigation would ask for, or – to be candid – all that we would want."

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Black agrees: "I would never want a woman to be a liability, and I would never want to be a liability. If there is a physical requirement and you meet that standard, then you should go."

Flying in combat

Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt recalls the physical strength she had to demonstrate to become the first female fighter jet pilot in American history as a young lieutenant in 1993. It was at centrifuge training, where pilots learn to withstand the g's – the force of gravity that they must pull to fly a fighter jet. For a 100-pound person, for example, pulling nine g's is the equivalent of suddenly weighing 900 pounds.

"Needless to say, you've got to be in very good physical condition to strain against those g's," Leavitt says. "All the blood is being pulled away from your head. If you can't strain against it, you cannot continue the training."

She recalls that early on, there was resistance to her flying: "I had someone who said to me point-blank that he didn't think women should fly fighters. He was concerned that the standards would change. But those standards are set – gender doesn't matter."

Leavitt has since served in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying F-15E Strike Eagle jets. "These are combat aircraft," she says. "And I have flown in combat.

"I don't obviously focus on the gender typically, but I do like the fact – and it's important that people see – that the Air Force has an environment where men or women can achieve what they want when they work hard, and those opportunities are available regardless of gender."

Today in her field, says Leavitt, "It's just really not an issue anymore, the gender thing, and I wouldn't tolerate it. The issue is the lethal employment of force whenever it is needed."

In June, Leavitt became the first woman to command an active-duty fighter wing.

"I've had incredible opportunities, to lead the men and women of the 4th Fighter Wing, to train all Strike Eagle air crew in the combat Air Force," she says, "and to employ precision combat air power in support of this nation."

Credit where it's due

And there are clear cases in which women have introduced new capabilities into combat units. FETs now accompany many units into villages. In a society in which men cannot interact freely with women – such as in Afghanistan – female US troops have been able to do just that.

Former marine Claire Russo points out that FETs often engage with men, too. She recalls traveling with one FET into a village that, once friendly to US forces, had turned hostile. Male military officers had visited the village for weeks to find out the reason for the violent shift.

Then the FET was sent out. "Within 10 minutes they were able to get the Pashtun elder to tell them," says Ms. Russo, an international affairs fellow at the Institute for Inclusive Security.

Contractors at a nearby US base had impounded the only village motorcycle, causing the village elder to lose face and income. "Afghan men don't find women as threatening," and sharing information with them doesn't cause them to lose face, Russo says.

"I use this analogy: Imagine the US is invaded, and eight men with assault rifles come to your door and want to talk to you about village security. Would you rather talk to them, or to eight women?" she asks.

The argument for women in combat should not be one of fairness, Russo says, but because "we see women as a strategic asset and an important part of how we execute our foreign policy."

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