At 0055 hours on December 20, 1989, U.S. Army helicopters lifted off from Howard Air Force Base, in Panama, to carry infantry across the Panama Canal. Their mission was to assault Fort Amador, one of the few strongholds of the Panamanian Defense Forces to offer resistance to the American forces that had invaded Panama as part of Operation Just Cause. Two of the helicopter pilots ferrying the troops were women: First Lieutenant Lisa Kutschera and Warrant Officer Debra Mann. Their Black Hawk helicopters, officially designated transport, not attack, aircraft, carried troops into what turned out to be "hot" areas, where the PDF was firing on helicopters. For their participation in the assault Kutschera and Mann (and their male counterparts) would be awarded Air Medals—a much coveted decoration.
At about the same time Kutschera and Mann were doing their jobs in the air, Captain Linda Bray, the commander of the 988th Military Police Company, was directing her unit to seize a Panamanian military dog kennel. Initial press reports stated that Captain Bray led a force of soldiers in a full-blown fire fight resulting in the deaths of three Panamanian soldiers. In fact no human casualties were suffered and what actually happened remains murky to this day. Still, the incident came to be portrayed as the first time a woman had led U.S. troops into combat.
One other incident involving women soldiers in Panama also attracted attention. Press reports of female cowardice centered on two women truck drivers who allegedly refused orders to drive troops into areas where Panamanian snipers were active. A subsequent account put forth by the Army was quite different. After eight straight hours of driving during the invasion, the two drivers became concerned about whether they could continue to drive their vehicles safely. Tears were shed at some point. Fresh drivers replaced the two women. A subsequent investigation concluded that at no time was anyone derelict in her duty, and the incident was closed without disciplinary action.
All told, some 800 female soldiers participated in the invasion of Panama, out of a total of 18,400 soldiers involved in the operation. Probably about 150 of the women were in the immediate vicinity of enemy fire. Owing to the publicity that women performing hazardous duty attracted, the once-dormant issue of the ban on women in combat units suddenly came awake.
Title 10 of the U.S. Code precludes women from serving aboard combat vessels or aircraft. Although there are actually no statutory restrictions on how Army women can be deployed, the Army derived its combat-exclusion policy from Title 10 and prohibits women from joining direct combat units in the infantry, armor forces, cannon-artillery forces, and combat engineers. The Army's formal definition reads as follows: "Direct combat is engaging an enemy with individual or crew-served weapons while being exposed to direct enemy fire, a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy's personnel, and a substantial risk of capture."
Although many obstacles to women's participation in the military have been overcome, the line that excludes women from combat units has not yet been crossed. None of the women who participated in the Panama invasion, even those who came in harm's way, were assigned to combat units. Rather, they were serving as military police, medical and administrative staff, and members of transportation, communications, maintenance, and other support units.
The issue of women in combat highlights the dramatic recent changes in the role of women in the military. Visitors at most military installations today will see women in numbers and roles unthinkable at the time the Vietnam War ended. Some 230,000 women now make up about 11 percent of all military personnel on active duty. Each branch of the military has a distinctive history with respect to women. The Air Force, which is 14 percent female, has the highest proportion of jobs open to women, mainly because none of its ground jobs involve combat. Although women are precluded from piloting bombers and fighter planes, they fly transport planes and serve on the crews of refueling planes, such as those that took part in the 1986 U.S. raid on Libya. The Navy, which is 10 percent female, did not allow women on ships other than hospital ships until 1977, but today women sailors serve aboard transport and supply ships. The Marine Corps is only five percent female, because a high proportion of its members serve in the combat arms. The Army, which is 11 percent female, has the largest total number of women (86,000), and is the vanguard service insofar as the role of women is concerned.
My research as a military sociologist has allowed me to observe at close hand the changing face of the Army since my days as a draftee, in the late 1950s. The account that follows, which briefly surveys the life, the sentiments, and the aspirations of women in the U.S. Army, draws upon my observations of Army units around the world but is based mainly on interviews with soldiers of every rank who participated in the invasion of Panama, including most of the women soldiers who were closest to the shooting.
When the Second World War broke out, the only women in the armed services were nurses. But manpower needs caused the precursor to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) to be established in May of 1942, followed shortly thereafter by the Navy's WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) and the Coast Guard's SPARs (from "Semper Paratus: Always Ready"). Women were allowed into the Marine Corps in 1943, and, refreshingly, these volunteers were called simply Women Marines. Some 800 civilian women who served as Air Force service pilots flew military aircraft across the Atlantic. The Women in the Air Force (WAF) was created in 1948, after the Air Force had become a separate service.
The Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 gave permanent status to military women, but with the proviso that there would be a two-percent ceiling on the proportion of women in the services (excluding nurses). No female generals or admirals were to be permitted. For the next two decades women averaged only a little over one percent of the armed forces, and nearly all of them did "traditional" women's work, in health-care and clerical jobs. During the Vietnam War some 7,500 women served in Vietnam, mostly in the Army. The names of eight women are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C.
Starting in the 1970s a series of barriers fell in relatively rapid succession. On June 11, 1970, women were promoted to the rank of general for the first time in U.S. history. The new generals were Anna Mae Hayes, of the Army Nurse Corps, and Elizabeth P. Hoisington, the director of the WACs. Women first entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps on civilian college campuses in 1972. Much more traumatic was the admission in 1976 of the first female cadets into the service academies. Today one of seven entrants to West Point is female, although, if truth be told, most of the male cadets are not yet reconciled to the presence of women. Congress abolished the WACs in 1978, leading to the direct assignment of women soldiers to non-combat branches of the Army. Today 86 percent of all military occupational specialties (MOSes) for enlisted personnel are open to women.
To put the combat-exclusion rule into practice and minimize the possibility that women in noncombat MOSes would be assigned to areas where they received hostile fire, the Army in 1983 implemented a system of direct-combat-probability coding (DCPC). The purpose of the probability code is to exclude female soldiers, whatever their MOS, from areas where they are likely to be, to use formal Army terminology, "collocated" with troops in direct combat. But once assigned to an area, Army policy states, female soldiers "in the event of hostilities will remain with their assigned units and continue to perform their assigned duties." This is what happened in Panama with the female helicopter pilots, military police, and truck drivers who came under fire. (In contrast, during the 1983 American invasion of Grenada four military policewomen were sent to the island with their unit only to be sent right back to Fort Bragg because of the fighting on the island.) DCPC is based on a linear concept of warfare, as is clear from the guideline that women soldiers not be assigned to positions found "forward of the brigade rear boundary"—that is, not close to the front lines. The coding is hard to reconcile with checkerboard combat theaters, however. Two of the twenty-three Americans killed in the Panama operation were in noncombat MOSes—a medic and a military policeman—as were thirty-six of the 324 wounded. One of the wounded was a printing and bindery specialist. None of the killed or wounded soldiers were women.