The Combat Jobs Women Can Now Fight For, Cont'd

1st Lt. Shaye Haver (R) stands with her class at Ranger School graduation at Fort Benning, Georgia, on August 21, 2015. She and Capt. Kristen Griest made history becoming the first female graduates (Tami Chappell / Reuters) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Many readers are responding to Marina’s two items on the lifting of the ban on women from combat units within the U.S. military: the official announcement from Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday followed by reactions from the four female veterans currently serving in Congress. We also ran a piece from David Barno and Nora Bensahe explaining why Carter denied the exceptions requested by the Marine Corps to keep a handful of their units closed to women.

Our first reader is a former servicewoman in the U.S. Army who joined the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo:

My experience was that the majority of women lag behind the men in the physically demanding duties (changing a tire on a five-ton truck, for example). On the 12-mile ruck marches with a full backpack, there were always women who couldn’t finish (and some men too, BTW). HOWEVER, there were a few women who did fine, even better than many of the men.

It’s like watching a marathon race. The first runners are always the fastest men. Then a few women start coming in. The fastest women are stronger than the majority of men. Things start to even out later in the pack.

In the Army there are some big strong women who can handle the heavier jobs. Not many, but is it fair to not give them an equal chance? Women are only 14 percent of the active-duty Army, so I doubt you would see many infantry females anyway.

Another former servicewoman was part of the 10th Mountain light infantry division and voices a little reservation:

I’m glad there will be fewer bars to women serving directly on the front lines in other fields. I knew some tough women when I was in—Air Assault qualified, triathletes, out-on-foot patrols in Iraq as support personnel or conducting interrogations. A lot of us women would have loved a shot at Special Forces—who wouldn’t? However, the couple of women I knew who tried out for slots supporting some kind of high-speed outfit wound up with hip and lower-back injuries while training up for it and had to drop from consideration.

They didn’t lack for will or spirit, though, and they continued to be an asset right where they were assigned. So the issue isn’t women in combat, as Tammy Duckworth says. It’s women in physically demanding fields like infantry and artillery. Some will handle it fine, but many will suffer higher rates of stress fractures. And lower upper body strength may affect unit effectiveness, though I doubt enough women will sign up for that to be a huge problem.

This reader expresses a lot of criticism over the military’s new policy:

None of the congresswomen quoted in that story have any experience in ground combat. The term “combat veteran” is applied by the Pentagon and VA to ANYONE who serves in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the surrounding Gulf States—whether they are a cook, a nurse, a dentist, or an infantryman. [CB note: From a detailed explanation of the “many uses of the term ‘combat veteran’”:

The broadest sense of the [term] — that a member served in active duty in a geographical area designated as a combat zone — is used for tax exemption purposes. A narrower definition is used for veterans to receive health benefits. It is a vague title that can be interpreted in different ways within the veteran community.]

Being “in combat” is not the same thing as being part of a combat unit. If you’re a finance officer in a convoy from Base A to Base B and come under fire or hit an IED, you’ve just entered combat. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get you into combat. And perhaps hundreds of military women have found themselves in this situation. And most performed admirably and courageously. [CB note: At least 287 women to date have received a Purple Heart, awarded to servicemembers killed or wounded in combat.]

However, those servicewomen then returned to a safe base with hot showers, hot food in a cafeteria-style setting, and a warm bed with clean sheets. This is quite different from the dynamics of a true ground combat unit living in the field or at a remote base. It is both crazy and immoral to drop a few 19-year-old girls into those environments.

And please, no one bring up the myth that the Israelis employ women as infantry. They don’t. The vast majority of Israeli women serve in support functions, freeing up men for combat. Some do serve as trainers in everything from marksmanship to tank operations. But they do not actually take those rifles or tanks into combat themselves. Women do serve in Israel’s border guard, which, while it has some similarities with infantry duty, is still a different animal.

There is no data on women performing in infantry, armor, and artillery to review ... because since the dawn of time women have never served in these types of roles. Not because there aren’t exceptions to the general rule that women are physically weaker than men—of course there are plenty of exceptions. I’m sure some of the female UFC could wup my butt. But that is not the point. That women in emergencies have served as guerrillas, snipers, and irregulars means very little.

This reader would disagree with that last point:

For those of you who say that women can’t fight in an army in an infantry capacity, here are some facts about some of history’s best snipers:

Chris Kyle, the deadliest U.S. sniper ever: 225 kills unconfirmed … confirmed: 160

Claudia Kalugina, a 17-year-old Soviet sniper: 257 Axis soldiers killed

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a major in the Soviet Army: 309 confirmed kills

The best part of all, these two ladies had an inferior rifle from the late 19th century while their American counterpart had the latest weapons with the best sights, communications, satellites, air support, and always got a hot meal waiting for him. The Russian chicks had nothing, not even food sometimes, and they fought in the freezing Russian winter. So think again next time you want to thump your chest about us men being tough.

What do you think about the full integration of combat units? Drop me an email, especially if you’re a current or former servicemember who saw combat. Update from a reader (who says he’s been an Atlantic subscriber since 1974):

I’m a retired Army officer who served in Desert Storm in 1st Armored Division, though as a logistics officer, not as an infantryman, tanker, or artilleryman. I just want to point out regarding the last comment you posted, the one where the reader says that no woman has ever served in an infantry role: the Scandinavian militaries have had women infantry soldiers for many years. Here and here are two quick sources.

Thanks for keeping this debate both open and (relatively) civil. My wife, BTW, is also a retired Army officer—we met as captains in Europe in 1979 and served together for 20+ years—but she is a dentist who never deployed into a combat zone (much to her chagrin). One of us, I think, was enough.

Sounds like my parents. My mother was a colonel in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and was nearly deployed to a combat zone during Desert Storm. (I was living with her at the time, in Stuttgart, Germany, and it was a tense time for a fourth grader.) My father, on the other hand, was fully deployed to a combat zone as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, though well before I was born. With the combat ban now repealed, I wonder how often a military brat will have both parents deployed with combat units at the same time.

The reader writes back:

Your parents sound fascinating. During the Gulf War, I had to worry about supporting a refugee collection point until the Red Cross could take over after the cease-fire. We had medical units and supplies, but no nurses, and no equipment for infants and children. We lost some children due to dehydration—couldn’t get an IV in. Somebody found us an 06 pediatric nurse, so we gave her a helicopter and a couple of medical supply folks and sent her shopping in the theater med supply stocks. She saved many, many lives.