Women in combat: Pentagon opens door to front lines

The Pentagon has opened the door for women to serve in combat – but just barely. Women will still not officially fight in battle, but new rules acknowledge their role on the front line. 

Julie Jacobson/AP
In this 2009 file photo, US Marine Female Engagement Team members Lance Cpl. Mary Shloss, right, of Hammond, Ind., Sgt. Monica Perez,, center, of San Diego, Calif. and Cpl. Kelsey Rossetti, of Derry, N.H. wait for the signal to begin their patrol with Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 3rd Regiment of the 2nd MEB, 2nd MEF in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

The Pentagon Thursday cracked open the door for women to serve in combat, though they will still not be permitted to fight in battle – at least officially.

Many of the jobs that the Pentagon plans to make available to women – including the chance to serve as medics and radio operators in certain battalions – will likely put them on the front lines. 

Senior US military officials acknowledge, however, that in the wars America has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan – rife with irregular battles – women have actually found themselves in combat for quite some time.

The new regulations – set to go into effect this summer – simply acknowledge that fact, they add.

“I have felt for the longest period of time that on a nonlinear battlefield there are no safe jobs,” General Peter Chiarelli, who recently retired as the nation’s second highest-ranking Army general, told the Washington Post this year. “There is a mistaken belief that somehow that through prohibiting women in combat jobs we can protect them.

More than 255,000 women have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 145 have lost their lives to gunfire and roadside bombs.

Many women say they don’t want to be protected at all, but rather to simply be held to the same standards as their male counterparts. Women will continue to be barred from serving as infantry soldiers or in special operations forces.

“To continue such a ban [on women in combat] is to ignore the talents and leadership that women bring to the military, and it further penalizes service women by denying them the opportunity for future promotions and assignments that are primarily given to personnel from combat arms specialties,” Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain, said in a statement.

The Pentagon’s new regulations, scheduled to be announced in a congressionally-mandated report out Thursday, are “extremely disappointing” because they continue to perpetuate a “brass ceiling,” Ms. Bhagwati, who now serves as the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network advocacy group, added.

It was in 2008 that General Ann Dunwoody rose to the rank of four-star – the first woman in the US military to do so. She now serves as the head of Army Materiel Command, which is responsible for developing and maintaining weapons systems and other military supplies.

This month, the Air Force tapped Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger to become that service’s first four-star general – and the second-ever female four-star in the US military. She is slated to lead Air Force Material Command.

It has long been difficult for women to rise to the top ranks of the military without combat experience. “Two top generals in 200 years isn’t exactly a stellar track record for upward mobility,” Bhagwati notes. 

That said, the new regulations – which may be reviewed by Congress – are a “huge step” forward for women in the military, Bhagwati acknowledges. 

“Now, talented women will be serving alongside their male peers in infantry and tank battalions, for example, in skills that are critical to the unit’s operational success,” she says. “This policy will also present some relief to war-weary battalions by providing an influx of fresh personnel that will help alleviate the burdens that frequent deployments present to troops.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.