Pentagon faces hurdle to women in Special Ops: 'uninformed' men

The Pentagon wants women to take on combat roles in Special Operations Forces, but an internal survey shows that the men in those jobs have doubts. Such concerns have been overcome before, though.

Stephen B. Morton/AP/File
An Army specialist hoists a 44-pound section of a 50 caliber machine gun onto an Abrams tank during a physical-demands study at Fort Stewart, Ga., on Feb. 23. Surveys find that men in United States Special Operations Forces do not believe women can meet the physical and mental demands of their commando jobs.

The men in the America's Special Operations Forces will not get a veto on women joining their ranks, but they do get an opinion, and a recent survey suggests that they are “uninformed,” a Pentagon summary of the survey says. 

As the Pentagon opens new positions to women – including combat posts and Special Operations Forces – it is taking steps to smooth the process as much as possible. The Special Operations Command survey was used to gauge apprehensions that troops might have in the hopes of finding ways overcome them.

“It was not a referendum by any stretch of the imagination,” says Kenneth McGraw, a spokesman for United States Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, Fla.

But the concerns voiced in the survey completed by about 9,000 members of Special Operations Command who are in positions currently open only to men speak to the challenges ahead for the Pentagon.

Though the survey itself was not obtained by the Monitor, a summary of it was, and it repeatedly stresses the need for the Pentagon to educate men in Special Operations about the crucial role women can – and have – played in their field.

The summary has echoes of the debate surrounding the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," which allowed gay troops to serve openly. A similar survey about that change in policy in 2010 showed similar concerns. But they have largely proved unfounded. The summary of the current survey, which was completed in March, hopes for the same outcome.

The point of the survey was “to examine the socio-cultural barriers to integration, and potential solution(s) to overcome those barriers,” it says.

One of the most commonly cited reasons against putting women in combat roles is the potential for them to be sexually assaulted if they are captured. But the summary notes that “this issue is not exclusive to women” – it is a problem for many captives, regardless of sex.

The entire conversation about women joining Special Forces is fraught with such misunderstandings, the survey found. Indeed, the Pentagon's failure to make a robust case for women in Special Operations Forces has led to “major misconceptions regarding the performance of females in mixed-gender teams,” the summary says.

The fact is, “women have served in SOF units ... for a long time,” the document notes, pointing to Air Force Special Operations aviation units and, more recently, Army Special Operations aviation fields.

“Women are important to our mission,” since they can interact with locals in places where other Special Operations Forces are currently prevented from going, it says. “The additional way of interacting and problem solving will make our SOF forces more effective overall.”

What is changing is that women, who previously have been appended to Special Operations Forces in non-combat roles, will now be able to become full special operators themselves. The Pentagon officially opened combat positions to women in 2013, though the decision has not yet taken effect. The services have until January integrate those posts or to come back with a reason why women cannot serve in these jobs.

There are many women interested in serving in Special Operations Forces, the summary suggests. “Our components have routinely received inquiries from women who want to attempt to qualify for ground combat specialities within SOF units,” it says. “Many of them are already serving in SOF formations.” 

The Pentagon does not “yet know how many” women are actually interested in these jobs, the document says. But there is no need for a “critical mass” of women before the Special Operations units can be opened, since the policy shift prohibits the establishment of quotas or ceilings.

A recent survey by the Defense Advisory Council on Women in the Services found that 22 percent of women currently in the military are “moderately or very interested” in transferring to combat jobs.

In the Marine Corps, the figure is higher, at roughly 40 percent, according to an April 2014 Marine Corps briefing.

“That’s a lot of women,” says retired Col. Ellen Haring, senior fellow at Women in International Security, an advocacy group in Washington.

Since 9/11, women serving overseas who have found themselves in combat situations have been awarded more than 9,000 combat action badges, which are awarded to soldiers “actively engaging or being engaged by the enemy and performing satisfactorily,” according to Army regulations.

Pentagon documents stress that standards will not be lowered to accommodate women.

This year, a dozen women have qualified to take part in the elite Army Ranger School, which is set to begin its first-ever coed class on April 20. Even if they pass, women will not be allowed to serve as Rangers until the policy changes take effect next January. But they will be allowed to wear their Ranger tabs on their uniforms.

The prospect of women special operators in the not-too-distant future remains a unsettling proposition for some of the men in the March survey. It highlighted concerns that women in the ranks would affect unit cohesion, and that in the rush to bring women aboard “leadership will capitulate to political pressure, allowing erosion of training standards,” the summary notes.

These are many of the same concerns that troops expressed in the face of the lifting of don't ask, don't tell. A survey released in November 2010 found that 30 percent of troops, including 43 percent of Marines, believed there would be negative effects.

But those concerns have turned out to be overblown.

The lifting of the ban on women in combat could open 237,000 new combat positions to women. Of these, roughly 26,500 are Special Operations Forces jobs. Given the length of training and selection programs, it would be 2017 before women are deployed in currently-closed Special Operations Forces. 

“However,” the summary says, already “there are SOF females forward in hazardous locations today.”

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