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Women in Combat: Study Recommends Ending Military's Last Male Bastion

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Heather Pfleuger -- an exuberant, all-American, girl-next-door -- was transformed when she arrived in Afghanistan. She'd shrug into her body armor, strap on her helmet, yank on gloves, goggles and scarf, and slide down behind her turret-mounted Mark-19, a 40mm grenade launcher. From there, she could kill an armored vehicle and everybody in it a mile away.

When she whooped with glee and led a convoy outside the wire, local Afghan fighters, hard men who'd faced down the Russians and the Taliban, fell respectfully silent.

"Specialist Pfleuger can hit anything,'' her squad leader. Sgt. Kevin Collins, told me proudly. "I feel sorry for anyone who gets in her sights.'

That was nine years ago, when Pfleuger was deployed to eastern Afghanistan with the 511th Military Police Company. At the time, I wrote a story boldly asserting that with women like Pfleuger easily accepted in the ranks, doing well at war and liking it, the argument over women in combat "is over.''
It wasn't over. In fact, it's about to heat up again. A study commission chartered by Congress is poised to send up to Capitol Hill a recommendation that the last remaining barriers to women – those that formally exclude them from infantry, armor and special forces -- be removed.

Those "close combat'' troops -- roughly 14 percent of the military -- are the ones that most jealously guard the all-male cohesion and camaraderie they insist makes them effective in the chaos and stress of long-term exposure to combat.

Never mind that some 200,000 women like Pfleuger have served in wartime Iraq or Afghanistan, that 134 have been killed and 721 wounded in action. With women attacking insurgents with strike fighters and helicopter gunships, machine guns and mortars, riding shotgun on convoys through IED territory and walking combat patrols with the infantry, the Defense Department and the military services have labored mightily to define just what it is that women cannot volunteer to do.

That hasn't been easy, given that in today's wars there are no front lines and no safe rear areas, as the saga of Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch aptly demonstrated (a 19-year-old supply clerk, she was captured and hospitalized by Iraqis after her military convoy got lost in 2003 and her truck crashed during an ambush).

The Army has tried to block women from joining units that "engage an enemy . . . 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.''

That seems to precisely define the situation of Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, an MP, who won the coveted Silver Star for her actions in a firefight in Iraq in 2005. When the convoy she was escorting was caught in an ambush, she leapt out and attacked an enemy trench. Then, with her squad leader, she cleared two trenches, killing three insurgents with her rifle. At the time, she was 23 years old.

Getting the award for heroism "really doesn't have anything to do with being a female," she told reporters. "It's about the duties I performed that day as a soldier."

A group of female Army cooks apparently felt the same way. They were deployed to Iraq where they discovered all the cooking was done by civilian contractors. Instead, they were pressed into service as infantry and came home proudly wearing the highly prized Combat Infantryman Badge, earned only by participating in a firefight with the enemy while a member of or assigned with infantry or special forces.

That's a piece of evidence cited by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, the group of retired senior military personnel, academics and other civilians whose recommendations on lifting the barriers will be published this winter.

Despite the boots-on-the-ground reality that women serve well and honorably and bravely in combat, what looms ahead are months of contentious congressional hearings and hot-tempered talk show shout-fests and angry op-eds, just like the season of "Don't Ask Don't Tell' of 2010.
And this time, the pivotal House Armed Services Committee is led by GOP conservative Buck McKeon of California, who opposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

As with the "Don't Ask" debate, the argument will come over whether the presence of women, in small units that must operate for extended periods under fire, would be disruptive.
Would women – if any actually volunteered for and could qualify for an infantry unit -- actually break its tight cohesion and cripple its fighting spirit?

"There's a growing number of women out there who have served 'outside the wire' on combat missions,'' said a woman who served on active duty in Iraq as an Army intelligence officer. "We carried a full basic load of ammunition and fired the SAW [squad automatic weapon, a light machine gun], .50-cals [heavy machine guns] and M-4 [rifles]) to protect our fellow man and to defeat the enemy,'' said this young officer, who asked not to be identified by name because of her current job. "We have endured the same harsh living conditions as men, where hygiene isn't exactly a priority,'' she said.

To insist that gender goes unnoticed in such small units would be "inane,'' she said; there is a "familial'' relationship among the soldiers. "Those who serve for the sake of serving and take pride in their jobs do not feel threatened by sexual orientation, race or gender,'' she said.

In basic officer training, this young woman was offered the chance to take the physical exam for acceptance into Ranger school, the Army's legendarily tough commando course. She and two other women aced the test – even though they were barred from attending the male-only school or to join Ranger units.

"The truth is that very few women and few men can meet or exceed the desired standards of an Army Ranger,'' she said. "But some can, and they should be given the opportunity."
In its brief for lifting the barriers, the commission cited research that it said found no negative impact from allowing women to serve in close-combat units. It cited a RAND study which found that "gender differences alone did not appear to erode cohesion.'' The study was published in 1997, well before women began taking a larger role in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That and similar studies are "wrong!'' said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a combat veteran, historian and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. "They simply don't understand the nature and character of close combat . . . the 'Band of Brothers' effect,'' he said recently on Fox TV news.

Scales, an expert on small combat units, said in fact there is no research that settles the question, and that allowing women into such units, in wartime and without knowing how it would affect combat effectiveness, would be risky.

"I've studied this for three decades,'' Scales said. "The bottom line is nobody knows -- the elements that make up cohesion in a firefight simply aren't known. And to rush into this, in my opinion, could damage cohesion.''

And so the battle is joined. Stay tuned.

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Israel excluded women from combat after the desecration of the bodies of several dead female soldiers. If wisdom includes the ability to learn from the mistakes of others, USA leadrers ain't got it!

February 02 2011 at 5:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Okay, the statement that females have been awarded the CIB did it. Show me the General Orders, show me the photos taken of the awarding. You must be in a infantry unit,in a 11 series,infantry MOS. If they were female they can not be in the MOS. So, how can this be true?

If the people don't care about females being killed and wounded at a much higher rate and the chance of fights,jealousy,sexual assaults and friction then let them in. I saw enough problems as more and more MOS's opened to women. There were no women in Divisions at any MOS when I joined the Army. By the 1980's they were in positions through out Divisions in support and combat support MOS's.

As a infantry Platoon Sgt. I had to deal with a conflict between one of my married NCO's fighting with a Officer over a female soldier from a medical company billeted next to our infantry company. Things like that became more common in the mid to late eighties.

My son has served as a MP for eleven years with many females and some are good at their jobs and some aren't,just like the men. However,the men tend to look out for them more than each other. The romance part comes up alot,also.

February 01 2011 at 12:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Captain John

How many wars have been won by female armies in history? How many future Super Bowls will be won by female football players? Who comes up with the G.I Jane stuff?

January 23 2011 at 4:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Captain John

Although I am totally in favor of letting a woman sharing in the terror of serving on the front line, but let me ask one question. A very simple question. How many wars could this country win if we had an all female U.S. Marine Corps? How may wars would we win if we had an All female 101st Airborne? How many wars would we win with an al female Green Beret unit? America is living in a world where movies and a leftist media creates a world that does not exist!

This is just a funny rendition of G.I. Jane.

January 23 2011 at 4:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hey, maybe the military can let women serve in combat right around the time they can pass the same physical tests that men are required to pass during basic training. Entirely new, much lower, physical standards had to be created for women because they simply could not make it otherwise, yet these people want to put women in combat? You have got to be kidding me. I was a member of the United States Army for most of the first decade of the 21st Century. Thank God women weren't allowed in combat then and hopefully they never will be. I wouldn't have joined to begin with if they were allowed in combat, and I can guarantee a whole lot of people that are still in the military feel the same way. And please spare us the ridiculous "[Random Male soldier] thinks [random female soldier] could kick any male's butt" nonsense quotes that always show up in these "women in combat" articles. Get back to me when a female soldier has the ability to carry around 200 pounds of dead weight on her back. Thankfully one chamber of Congress is run by a party that understands the military exists to win wars, not serve as a laboratory for various social experiments.

January 20 2011 at 9:23 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Letting females into the Infantry would be a complete disaster. On my company's last deployment to Iraq we fell under an MP battalion and as such had females placed in our ranks. One officer was caught sleeping with one of his female soldiers which caused a huge commotion and created more issues to be dealt with in the platoon. My company constantly had discipline issues and a person’s sex became a paramount issue. One female complained she wasn't allowed to gun because of her sex when in fact she was just too short to see over the turret. She kept complaining and complaining until she was allowed to gun (standing on an ammo can). The first time she fired the .50 the ricochet kicked her off the ammo can and that gun truck was rendered completely combat ineffective. This was in training thankfully or it could have meant lives were lost instead of face. But all she had to do to gun was threaten an IG (inspector general, like internal affairs for the Army) complaint which would be a black eye to the unit and the officers leading it.
Never mind the inappropriate fraternization that ALWAYS occurs in units with both sexes. There will always be favoritism in the Army, that's just a fact of life, but when sexual relationships begin to develop (which don’t kid yourself, they will) these problems are only exacerbated. These issues affect units in support branches of the Army which is bad enough. All these issues, which take center stage in the politically correct Army we have today, just pile on top of all the issues we already have.
They physical aspects are just way too obvious to point out. Going up a mountainside with 70 pounds of gear on in 110 degree weather kicks the butt of the most physically fit males on earth already.
The problem is this is being pushed as an issue of progressiveness, sticking up for that rare female that wants to fight in the Infantry, as opposed to an issue of practicality. In all practicality this is a no brainier to bar females from the infantry but the people who push for these repeals and changes in combat units have no idea how we operate, and the issues we already deal with. Sometimes political correctness needs to take a back seat, we have enough to deal with already.
Ask this simple question, would an infantry platoon be more or less combat effective with females in it? That's all that it really matters when the bullets start flying.

An Infantryman

January 20 2011 at 3:43 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jhmsbb13's comment

Exactly. I get so sick and tired of people who refuse to acknowledge the fact that men and women are physically different. Sorry, but the vast majority of women who join the military simply could not physically handle the rigors of combat on an extended basis. As I mentioned in a previous comment, women are not even held to the same standards as men during basic training, particularly in the Marines, yet we are supposed to believe none of that matters when they are put into a combat situation? You gotta be joking me. WOMEN ARE NOT THE SAME AS MEN.

January 20 2011 at 9:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I believe the national sentiment would be far different in the event a female soldier were to be captured in combat vs. her male counterpart, and rightfully so. After all, we haven't even experimented with things like organizing a male/female professional football team. Isn't the notion of combat far worse? Do other countries have women in combat? Have we ever captured one of theirs?

January 19 2011 at 8:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

If it become acceptable now, eventually, if the draft is ever reinstated, women will be drafted too. I know there are exceptional women, however, they can serve their country in other ways. Being honest, there women who suffer from PMS and that could be quite scarey depending on their "mood swings".

January 19 2011 at 6:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They must be running out of people to police the world

January 19 2011 at 5:54 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

oh there wont be any problems, just send all the males in for sensitivity traing , yeah thatll work

January 19 2011 at 5:51 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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