By now you have surely heard about the changes that the U.S. Military has made regarding its policies for women serving in combat roles. The Department of Defense has openly recognized women’s contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the nature of war has changed in the last decades, so have long-held attitudes and opinions about women serving in the military.
Most people would be surprised to know just how long there has been controversy concerning women’s roles in battle. Would you believe the debate goes back to the 18th century, back to the Revolutionary War? A woman by the name of Margaret Corbin manned a cannon during the battle of Ft. Washington in New York. She also became the first woman to receive a military pension, though it was half of what the men got.
Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns began with US military policy prohibiting women from serving in combat roles. Army commanders got around the letter of the law by “attaching” women to combat units instead of having them assigned to the same. For the most part, women bore the stress of combat well. They integrated into their respective units and performed to expectation. One such person was Jaclyn O’Shea, who did full combat patrols while lugging around combat rucksacks of up to 70 pounds for days.
The military found that women have the physical stamina to finish the job. Importantly, having women co-mingled in combat units has not disrupted the cohesion of those units. Most importantly, they’re mentally tough and don’t break under fire. A recent NPR article weighs in on the debate concerning the combat readiness of female soldiers.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military benefited from female soldiers in ways that surprised almost everyone. For instance, for cultural reasons, male soldiers were not allowed to search women for bombs or weapons. U.S. female soldiers, however, could and did. There was an unforeseen benefit: it was soon apparent that the Iraqi and Afghanistan women would talk to other women. Female soldiers gathered intelligence that the men could not get.
The military still has to grapple with certain policies and figure out how to deal with the realities of men and women side-by-side on the battlefield. Men and women need separate bunks and bathrooms. There is the reality that soldiers have sex, and some women will be evacuated because of pregnancy. Of utmost importance is that the U.S. military take the proper steps to ensure sexist attitudes and practices are not perpetuated. Military leaders are working at this moment to address its outstanding sexual violence problem — a problem that has attracted the attention of the House and Senate as well.
Some 280,000 women have worn American uniforms in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 150 have died and over 800 have been injured. Hundreds of female soldiers have received a Combat Action Badge, awarded for actively engaging with a hostile enemy. Two women, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, and Specialist Monica Lin Brown, have been awarded Silver Stars — one of the highest military decorations awarded for valor in combat — for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What about post-traumatic stress disorder for female soldiers? PTSD hits 20 to 30 percent of veterans who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know that these pressures can be tremendous, including intensified anger and a higher suicide rate than noncombatants. It’s still early to say whether it affects women differently than men. It will take some time to understand how women deal with the trauma of combat. Some female soldiers have come forward for help. There is at least some evidence that female soldiers feel pressure to hide their true feelings and struggles for fear of being perceived as being feeble or weak.
You would expect, at the very least, that those sorting out military policy in these relatively new areas will exercise caution. We should hope to find them willing to set, adjust, and change policies, according to the data. We would hope they make decisions based on facts: facts that secure and promote the health, safety, and effectiveness of the military unit and those that form a part of it.