To many active duty and veteran United States service women, the question of whether they will be able to officially serve in combat – a question that seemed settled – now feels uncomfortably open again.
Last year, the women at a conference hosted by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) celebrated the first female graduates of the Army’s legendary Ranger School and the lifting of the ban on women in combat. The mood was jubilant.
This year’s conference is more subdued, tinged with worries about whether women’s military service will continue to be valued, they say, and whether recent hard-fought victories will be stripped away from them.
President-elect Donald Trump has hinted heavily about “the potential for the future administration to repeal the lifting of the ban on women in ground combat,” says retired Lt. Col. Kate Germano, now the chief operating officer at Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).
During the the election, Mr. Trump complained that the integration of women into the infantry ranks amounts to a misguided striving among senior Defense Department officials to be “politically correct.”
When asked by CBS if he would reverse the policy last December, he called it “a very tricky subject.”
“You’re in there, and you’re fighting, and you’re sitting next to a woman, and now they want to be politically correct,” he said of male soldiers in the field. Women “want to do it, but there are major problems. And, as you know, there are many people that think this shouldn’t be done, at a high level.”
Trump also tweeted in 2013 that it made sense that sexual assault would follow gender integration: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
When asked about it in September, Trump defended the tweet. “I think that that’s absolutely correct,” he said. But he added that he wouldn’t “kick [women] out” of the military for this reason, but perhaps look into more effective prosecution of the crime.
One senator mentioned as a possible secretary of Defense, Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas, has said that women shouldn’t serve in front-line combat roles because their “nature” makes them unfit for it.
Women could “impair the mission essential tasks” of all-male units, he said in comments he made as a freshman congressman, and former infantry officer, in 2013. “And that’s been proven in study after study – it’s nature, upper-body strength, and physical movements, and speed, and endurance, and so forth.”
The platform of the Republican Party calls for reinstituting the ban on women in “direct ground combat units and infantry battalions.”
Expecting less of women?
This sort of move would be a blow not only to women in the military, but camaraderie within the ranks, says Ms. Germano, who commanded the Marine Corps' all-female training battalion at its Parris Island, S.C., boot camp. "Denying strong, highly qualified women the opportunity to compete for these positions would continue to diminish their standing in the eyes of their male counterparts.”
This affects not only morale, but the ability of the services to recruit and retain women as they continue to grapple with just how highly valued their service actually is, notes Ms. Germano. She was relieved of her command at Parris Island after she raised questions about whether gender-segregated training units lead to suspicion among male counterparts that female Marines aren’t held to the same standards that they are.
Retention of women is a key concern for top Defense officials, who have repeatedly argued that women are not being brought into front-line jobs for the sake of political correctness, but because they're needed.
“I don’t know what the debate is, actually – frankly – on women in combat,” Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s top officer, said in remarks last year. “Because women have been fighting in combat for quite some time.”
He recalled a female lieutenant he worked with during his time as a brigade commander. She was injured during a roadside bombing and rocket-propelled grenade attack. “She jumps up, and one of my guys is hurt really bad, prostrate and bleeding,” General Milley recalled. “She dashes across 20 or 30 meters of open ground under fire – wounded herself – and drags this guy to safety. And this guy was 230 pounds, and he had all his stuff on.”
He added, “I have seen so many [similar stories] over the last 10 or 15 years.”
These are the sorts of stories that aren’t often portrayed in popular culture, said women at the conference this week, many of whom eschew the limelight. When asked if their service is recognized and valued by the general public, three quarters of respondents to the SWAN survey released this week said, “No.”
Nearly half (48 percent) of 1,200 women surveyed consider “gender bias” to be the biggest challenge facing all service women.
Despite this, however, 80 percent of women surveyed by SWAN said that they would recommend a career in the service to other women.
Army Capt. Jill Mueller understands this love of service and desire to share it, despite the struggles she and many of her comrades in arms have faced.
A female observer at the Army’s Ranger School, Captain Mueller bonded with many of her fellow observers and Ranger instructors. One of her closest woman friends there just deployed to Iraq to work as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, destroying the roadside bombs that Islamic State fighters have planted with the aim of killing US and Iraqi troops.
She could not be more proud or excited to deploy, Mueller says. “I’m so proud of her.” Last week, she got a picture of a fellow female soldier overseas, sharing cigars with her brothers in arms.
In her own career as a field artillery officer, Mueller has worked directly with infantrymen, cavalry scouts, forward observers, and tankers. “I was valuable, well-liked, and pulled my weight,” she says. “Plus, it was fun training and working alongside those men, doing physically demanding, dirty, difficult tasks – and I was proud of the excellent work we did.”
The long war
None of her fellow female troops have any interest in promoting some social experiment, Mueller says. “I would never want our military to lower standards.”
“Based on everything I have seen throughout my military career, I have zero doubt that the combat exclusion policies will someday seem illogical,” she says. In the long run, “it doesn’t matter if the new administration changes the policy.”
Mueller says she and her fellow female soldiers are braced for changes. “It would be a painful disappointment for me if the administration keeps women out of certain combat roles, but it’s not hopeless,” she says.
“There are just too many strong, talented women out there, and someday the leadership will want our strength and talent in those combat roles,” she adds.
In that case, she will try to remember, she says, that the Army “is inclusive now because our foremothers were physically strong, undeniably talented, resilient, optimistic, and passionate about serving their country.”
And she will urge her fellow female soldiers to repeat this same mantra to themselves, she adds, until it comes true for good.