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.