Women across the military celebrated the news this week that they can now fight in wars alongside their male counterparts as equals, 40 years after the service academies first opened their doors to females.
Some gathered around computer screens to watch Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s press conference broadcast live over the Web on Thursday. Others, out in the field on exercises, followed the developments through text messages from their fellow soldiers.
When the press conference was over, they picked up the phone and called each other, reveling in the news and the congratulatory texts, too, from the men with whom they had deployed to war over the years – men who told them, it’s about time.
“I think it’s thrilling – it’s fantastic,” says retired Col. Ellen Haring, a West Point graduate who filed a lawsuit in 2012 to lift the ban on women in combat. “It’s the end of formal discrimination against women in the military – and frankly it’s one of the very last vestiges of legal discrimination against women in this country.”
1st Lt. Jill Mueller celebrated her birthday Thursday and, she says, she can’t imagine a better present – ever, she says – than Secretary Carter’s announcement. She took over a job last month as a fire support officer in Fort Bliss, Texas, commanding a Bradley fighting vehicle tank crew – a position that was closed to women until 2014.
First Lieutenant Mueller spends every day with her crew in the motor pool, working on her Bradley. She canceled her birthday party this week when a time slot opened up on the Bradley simulator because, she says, “I would rather be in there than celebrating my birthday.”
Having worked as an adviser for women at Ranger School this year, Mueller says she immediately thought of another female adviser, whose longtime dream has been to become a Ranger. Although three women passed the Army’s storied and legendarily difficult Ranger School earlier this year, under the combat exclusion policy they could not actually serve in the Special Operations Forces as Rangers.
Now they can.
“My cell phone blew up – pretty much every woman I know in the Army is texting and calling and excited about this,” she adds. “We are over the moon.”
The news was not cause for celebration in all circles. While both the military and civilian heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force recommended that all combat jobs be open to women, the Marine Corps did not.
Many noted that Gen. Joseph Dunford – the former top officer in the Marine Corps and now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – was not sitting beside Mr. Carter at Thursday’s press conference, as is customary with these sorts of announcements.
As commandant of the Marine Corps, General Dunford had requested that women be kept out of front-line infantry jobs, pointing to a controversial study that concluded that women were more likely to get hurt and would likely decrease the fighting effectiveness of the force.
His absence from the press conference, says Ms. Haring, “was disappointing.”
The service has been in similar positions of opposition many times before. Most recently, top Marine Corps leaders were vehemently opposed to the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” restrictions that prevented gay troops from serving openly in the military.
Once the ban was overturned, they saluted smartly – a transition, it is widely agreed, that has been remarkably smooth since.
“I think one thing you can always say for the Marine Corps is that even if the decision is unpopular, we take the order and do what we need to do,” says Col. Kate Germano, who was forced earlier this year to give up command of her all-female unit after she advocated for equal treatment for men and women.
Lifting the combat exclusion policy is the “first chapter” in equality of opportunity for women in the Marine Corps, Colonel Germano says. The next chapter will be “looking at how we recruit and train women.”
As it stands now, the Marines segregate men and women during basic training. It’s the only service that does this. “The standards are different, and the expectations are different,” she says.
This must change, many Marines say, and the achievement of women at places like Army Ranger School offer a way forward.
“That helped shift the perspective on what’s achievable,” Germano says. By taking such models of recruiting and training women and applying it to the Marine Corps, “We’re going to see women do things no one ever thought they could do.”
Even women who have left the Marine Corps because they felt they were undervalued – Germano will retire from the military next year – say that they are heartened by the new opportunities to make the service they once loved better.
“It has been an incredibly discriminatory service, and that’s absolutely why I got out, because I felt like I was wasting my talent,” says Anu Bhagwati, who served as a captain in the Marine Corps and as the former director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an organization that has advocated for lifting the ban on women in combat.
“It’s one of those days when I’m relieved that civilian leadership has a say in how the military does business,” she adds. “The military wasn’t doing right by women for many years, but Secretary Panetta and now Carter have really led the way.”
With this decision, she says, the Pentagon is not just doing the right thing, but it’s setting itself up to be a more effective force.
“So many women have bypassed the military for other careers because they knew they wouldn’t be treated the way they wanted to be – and should be. They became leaders in other fields,” Ms. Bhagwati adds. “The military desperately needs women to lead troops overseas. By creating a level playing field, the military will be so much stronger for it.”
The fact that women can aim for jobs previously closed to them – though it might take years of training to meet the standards of those jobs – is a game-changer, says Maj. Katey Van Dam, a Marine attack helicopter pilot.
“Every little girl in America right now can grow up and dream of driving a tank, or being a machine gunner, or an infantryman, and nobody’s going to say, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl,’ ” she says. “It’s harboring those ambitions and desires at a young age that makes people want to join the service.”
Those are the same dreams Staff Sgt. Paris Cervantes had as a young girl, until she was told she couldn’t be in the infantry. So she served in Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance device (EOD) technician instead, blowing holes in walls so that the infantrymen could fire through them. She stood on rooftops with men in combat, and lived in mud houses in the middle of nowhere.
“As much as I loved EOD, I was asking, ‘Can I please just be infantry?’ ” she recalls. “When I joined the Army, I joined to go to war.”
Though being deployed to Afghanistan was a highlight of her career, the fact that she was not officially allowed to fight in combat meant that she has not always felt like a full member of the team.
“Now maybe some of the younger women who enlist, and these younger officers, will not have to deal with that,” she says. “They can just be seen as a member of the team, as a soldier, as someone who is going to bring the fight to the enemy.”
With the news this week, Staff Sergeant Cervantes is considering giving up the extra bonus pay she earns as an EOD specialist to join the infantry. “I would take a pretty severe pay cut,” she says. “But it’s something I think of almost every day – the Army will need leaders” as these jobs open up.
As a Bradley commander, Mueller is one of them, and she is not the first woman to hold the job. She has had the benefit of mentorship from her predecessor, who deployed to Afghanistan, attached to an infantry unit and “loved it.” Mueller talks to her mentor nearly every day. She seeks guidance, too, from the fellow female fire support officer in her squadron who teaches classes to her crew. “She is just the best of the best.”
Being inspired by the competent women around her, together doing jobs that they were not allowed to have until last year, has made all the difference, she says.
“For the first time in my Army career, I came into a unit and everyone expected me to be great.”
None of her crew members, she adds, care that she’s a woman – only that she’s a good leader who can get the job done.
She reflected on these facts with a girlfriend Thursday. “I was telling her how in my new job, I love the Army and the Army loves me back,” she says. “And finally, I feel like it’s going to stay that way.”