The Department of Defense (DoD) announced last week that it has approved plans for women to be integrated into combat roles and all other roles previously reserved for men. The new plans apply to all branches of the U.S. armed forces, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
The Pentagon first lifted the ban on women serving in U.S. military combat units, including the Navy SEALs and other elite special forces, in 2013. To assuage skepticism from critics of the decision, the ban came with a stipulation that women seeking to serve in combat must pass all standard mental and physical tests and training.
Of course, bringing large numbers of women into roles they had previously been excluded from requires more than simply lifting a ban. Each branch of the military was given a deadline of January of this year to either complete plans to fully integrate women or request exemptions for specific specialties.
According to CNN, in order to develop plans for effectively introducing women into specialties newly available to them within the military, each branch explored the potential impact of thousands of new women recruits, evaluated possible cultural concerns and questions regarding the physical demands of combat service, and assessed the views of men who would be serving alongside women for the first time, particularly those in special forces units like the Rangers, SEALs and Green Beret.
The plans presented by the individual branches of the military varied greatly in length and detail. According to the Christian Science Monitor, which was among the first to cover the specifics of the individual plans, the Marines offered a 56-page plan with detailed guidelines regarding how to prepare to train and recruit women throughout its ranks, from the infantry to elite special operations command. In contrast, the SOCOM planning document made public consisted of only a few pages and was, perhaps predictably, rather skimpy on details.Whether or not any branches asked for exceptions to exclude women from specific roles, the DoD ultimately chose not to exclude women from any area of service. “There will be no exceptions,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said at a news conference in December. “[Women will] be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
Anticipating the new opportunities that would be offered to them, Women began signing up for combat positions and enrolling in special forces training before the plans to integrate them were even finalized. Last August, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver made history by becoming the first two women to graduate from the U.S. Army’s elite Ranger School. At least one other women, Maj. Lisa Jaster, completed Ranger School since then. With new plans and regulations in effect, these women should soon receive assignments. Likewise, the first female Navy SEALS could begin getting assignments in 2017.
The transition to include women in a broader range of roles is causing the military to undergo vast institutional changes. It requires major overhauls such as adapting recruiting and training practices, as well as simple but significant changes like making job titles and descriptions as gender neutral as possible. One crucial change concerns the design of the gear that will be worn by women assuming fighting roles.
Women have served the U.S. military in numerous non-combat capacities in war zones for years. In fact, roughly 200 women have died while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many more have been wounded in those countries. However, because women have traditionally not served in infantry or other combat specialities, the Pentagon never bothered designing body armor and gear to specifically fit women. As a result, many women in combat zones wear armor that limits their range of motion or doesn’t effectively protect their bodies.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy served in intelligence from 2003 to 2013. She was on the front lines, interviewing insurgents, but her body armor didn’t offer her much protection. “My entire lower pelvis was exposed,” Duffy said in a recent report for Vice. A spokesperson for the DoD told Vice they have budgeted $150 million for a pilot program to develop new protective gear specifically for women. The program began as recruitment tool, but in a move that highlights the DoD’s commitment to making women an integral part of combat units for the long haul, retention became a key factor in assessing the program’s success. “We do believe … that this new benefit will have positive effects on women’s retention, over time,” the spokesperson told Vice.While many have embraced the decision to welcome women into the combat lineup, there have been some critics. Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and West Point graduate who authored the book “Deadly Consequences: How Cowards Are Pushing Women into Combat“, told Time in 2013 that he feared the Pentagon would lower standards to allow women to serve in combat roles. According to Maginnis, this would undermine the effectiveness of America’s fighting forces. “Pentagon brass are kowtowing to their political masters and radical feminists to remove exemptions for women in ground combat in defiance of overwhelming scientific evidence and combat experience,” Maginnis said in an interview with Time’s Mark Thompson. “This craven behavior is terribly dangerous for our armed forces, our national security, and especially the young women who will be placed in harm’s way.”
When Thompson pointed out that the Pentagon had insisted it would not be lowering standards for anyone, Maginnis replied, “I don’t believe them, and neither should the American people… Personnel policy, however, is driven by the ‘diversity metrics’ outlined in the 2011 Report of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission. Diversity, not military readiness, is the highest priority.”
While Maginnis’s opinion may not be the most popular, and could arguably be considered archaic, he’s not alone. A recent poll suggested that two out of three male Marines and one out of three female Marines oppose women transferring into combat specialties. Another poll suggested that only 22 percent of women currently serving in the military were “moderately” or “very” interested in being part of fighting units.
The arguments against women fighting alongside men on the front lines tend to echo Maginnis’s assertions. They’re often based on the opinion that integrated units will perform worse than all-male units. Research on the topic has produced conflicting results. A November article from The Army Times suggests that the women graduating from Ranger School performed comparably to men during their training. However, a report published by the Marine Corps only two months earlier claimed that gender-integrated combat units fell short of their all-male counterparts. Both reports were based on a small sample group, which could skew results. For instance, The Army Times article is based on the results of only two women’s performances in Ranger School. And in 2 of the 5 categories of integrated infantry courses the Marine Corps studied for its report — the Tank Crewman Course and the AAV Crewman Course — only 7 women attempted the courses whereas dozens of men did. To get more definitive results related directly to performance in the U.S. military will take additional time and research.
In the meantime, there are more than a dozen nations where women can serve in combat roles. In many of those countries women having been serving in combat specialties for more than a decade. That could provide some insight into the matter, and there is considerable evidence that these nations have suffered no reduction in the effectiveness of their fighting units as a result of integrating women into them. Women also serve in combat roles in militias and other fighting units around the globe. The all-women Kurdish militia units fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq come to mind.
The ability to join fighting units in the U.S. armed forces is crucial to women’s opportunities beyond the battlefield. Service in infantry and other combat units can be vital to career advancement in the military. The plans from the individual branches of the military take this into consideration and seek to expand the path to promotion for female service members. The Marines Corps’ gender-integration plan, for instance, calls for every ground combat battalion to have at least two female officers or noncommissioned officers from the Marines or Navy staffed at least 90 days prior to junior female Marines arriving to the unit.
These women officers will serve their primary military occupational specialty in these units, but they’ll help ensure the units are being effectively integrated as well. “Their presence is also intended to help acculturate and socialize previously all-male units to working with female Marines. Finally, their presence will also create mentorship opportunities with female (and male) Marines,” The Marine Times reported.
These are positive changes, but there is, of course, still considerable work to be done.
In January officials from the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) hosted forumon the integration of combat jobs and other cultural changes within the military in Washington, D.C. According to an article in The Military Times, the forum sought to provide military women with the knowledge and tools necessary to achieve their goals, both personally and professionally. “What we hear from our members is that they still don’t feel like they have a community where they belong,” Julie Patterson, the CEO of SWAN told The Military Times. “They don’t really know where to turn.” Patterson is working to build a supportive and empowering network for the new generation of women entering the military’s ranks. “We’re hoping that because we’re by women, for women, they’ll be more willing to look at what we’re providing,” she said.
Despite the massive overhaul the military is undergoing to become more gender-neutral and inclusive, it appears that there is at least one gender-specific rule that will remain intact for now. Women may be welcome to join fighting units, but they still don’t have to worry about being drafted into them anytime soon.