Taking on Questions About Allowing Women in Combat

Kayla Williams, an Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division, being promoted to SGT/E5 in Tall 'Afar. Photo credit: "Love My Rifle More Than You"/Facebook

Kayla Williams, an Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division, being promoted to SGT/E5 in Tall ‘Afar. Photo credit: “Love My Rifle More Than You”/Facebook

It was January 24th, just a few weeks ago, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced he was lifting the ban on women serving in combat.

While many women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan argue they’ve been in combat for years, they welcomed the news as yet another step in getting rid of gender-based barriers in the military.

But that announcement didn’t automatically open up all roles to women.  Some units, for example the Navy SEALS, can apply for an exemption and  have until 2016 to decide whether or not they want to include women.

Women in Combat: The Changing Roles of Women in the Military” was the online forum sponsored by the Center on National Policy in Washington D.C.

It featured Kayla Williams, a sergeant and Arabic linguist with 101st Airborne, who served almost a year in Iraq. She went on foot patrols with the infantry, yet wasn’t even given the protective plates for her flack vest because as a woman she was not considered in combat.

More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan where there are no more traditional battle lines and everyone is exposed to combat conditions.

“I know I don’t have the right haircut, but I also went to war,” Williams explained when asked by an audience member if women had a harder time transitioning to civilian life. “Feeling invisible, having people ask me if I was allowed to carry a gun because I’m just a girl, having other people ask me if I was in the infantry when that is still not authorized. It really made it harder for me to transition back into a society that had no conception what so ever of what I’ve been through.” Continue reading

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Panetta Calls Gen. John Allen Outstanding, Selfless, Brilliant

The following is a statement released by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta on General John Allen’s Decision to Retire:

Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta. Photo courtesy of the Dept. of Defense website.

Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta. Photo courtesy of the Dept. of Defense website.

“Gen. John Allen has proven himself to be one of the United States military’s most outstanding battlefield leaders, a brilliant strategist, and an exemplary Marine, and I am deeply grateful for his many years of dedicated service to our country.

“I will be forever thankful that the international effort in Afghanistan was in Gen. Allen’s capable hands during much of my tenure as secretary of defense.  His leadership over the last 19 months will long be remembered as pivotal to this campaign.  The strategy he developed and implemented has put us on the right path towards completing this mission, with Afghan forces now on track to step into the lead for security nationwide this spring and to assume full security responsibility by the end of next year.

“Gen. Allen’s selfless dedication to our troops and to their mission was a source of inspiration to those who served with him, as well as to those of us here at home.  He has earned the lasting thanks of this nation for carrying the heavy burden of leadership with utmost professionalism and courage.  I wish him and his entire family all the best in the next chapter of their lives.”

Five Myths About Women in Combat by a Marine Major

Maj. Jane Blair Photo credit JaneBlair.com

Maj. Jane Blair Photo credit JaneBlair.com

The old myths started swirling as soon as word got out that women would be allowed to serve in combat roles. You’ve heard the fears – the questions:

  • “I just hope they don’t lower the standards to let women in.”
  • “Will women HAVE TO serve in combat?”

“The answers are no and no.

But, those fears and comments will only come faster and with more fervor as the Pentagon makes it formal announcement today, Jan. 24, 2013.

So, I want to share an opinion piece published in 2011 in the Washington Post, Five Myths About Women in Combat. I found it enlightening.

It’s written by Maj. Jane Blair, a Marine Corps reservist, the author of “Hesitation Kills: A Female Marine Officer’s Combat Experience in Iraq.”

Blair takes on the top assumptions on why women should not serve in combat in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post:

1. Women are too emotionally fragile for combat.

This myth is based on cultural stereotypes and Hollywood hype. There is no concrete evidence to suggest that women are any more susceptible to combat stress than their male counterparts…

2. Women are too physically weak for the battlefield.

While it is indisputable that the average man has more upper-body strength than the average woman, women have different physical abilities that enable them to offer unique capabilities in combat…

3. The presence of women causes sexual tension in training and battle.

 This notion insults men as much as women. For nearly 10 years, the U.S. military has been fighting two wars with a majority of units that include both men and women. Why hasn’t supposed “sexual tension” undermined the stellar performance of gender-integrated units? …

4. Male troops will become distracted from their missions in order to protect female comrades.

This myth conjures an image of a heroic soldier, attacking the enemy and about to win, until catastrophe strikes: He spots a wounded woman on the battlefield and abandons his assault to save her life, costing his side the battle. It’s the “women and children first” argument translated to the battlefield…

5. Women can’t lead men in combat effectively.

Why not? Across the planet, women have proven their worth as leaders as diplomats, heads of state and corporate titans. This is no less true in the military and in combat. In history as well as ancient mythology, women have often emerged as heroic leaders of men and women in battle, with Joan of Arc and the Assyrian queen Semiramisjust two of the most notable examples. In the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been countless women who, often unrecognized, have served as leaders of military men and women…

You can read the full opinion piece by  Marine Maj. Jane Blair here.

Author Maj. Jane Blair in Iraq. Photo credit JaneBlair.com

Author Maj. Jane Blair in Iraq. Photo credit JaneBlair.com

AP: Secretary Panetta Lifts the Ban on Women in Combat

Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta

Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta

The Associated Press is reporting that Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military’s ban on women serving in combat. The move opens hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs to women in the military

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

Panetta’s decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

The Defense Secretary was sued last year by four women in the military and the American Civil Liberties Union who claimed the exclusion of women from combat positions was unconstitutional.

NPR reports that the ACLU website  published a post from one of the plaintiffs, Major Mary Jennings Hegar, who has been deployed twice to Afghanistan.

She tells the story of being shot at in a helicopter while trying to rescue a fellow soldier and concludes:

“If there is one thing I’ve learned about the differences between us all throughout my years of service, it’s this: putting the right person in the right job has very little to do with one’s gender, race, religion, or other demographic descriptor. It has everything to do with one’s heart, character, ability, determination and dedication.

“That’s the problem with the military’s combat exclusion policy. It makes it that much harder for people to see someone’s abilities, and instead reinforces stereotypes about gender.

Marine Gen. John Allen Cleared in Email Investigation

Gen. John Allen, ISAF Commander. Photo courtesy of the DoD.

Gen. John Allen, ISAF Commander. Photo courtesy of the DoD.

The top commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, has been cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with sending emails to  Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.

Allen was investigated by the Department of Defense Inspector General for sending a reportedly large number of emails to Kelley who was a “friend of MacDill Air Force Base where Allen had served with Central Command.

The emails came to light after Kelley complained to the FBI about threatening emails from the official biographer of former CIA director David Petraeus.

Petraeus admitted to an affair with his biographer and resigned his post.

Allen appeared to be a collateral casualty as his emails to the Tampa socialite were scrutinized for months and his promotion to command NATO forces and the European Command was put on hold.

But in a news release late Tuesday night, Defense Press Secretary George Little wrote that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “was pleased to learn that allegations of professional misconduct were not substantiated by the investigation.”

The release continued, “The secretary has complete confidence in the continued leadership of Gen. Allen, who is serving with distinction in Afghanistan.”

There’s no word yet if the Marine Corps general’s nomination hearing which was postpone will be rescheduled.

Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Suing to Allow Women in Combat


Captain Zoe Bedell, US Marine Corps Reserves; First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, US Marine Corps; Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt, US Army Reserves; and Major Mary Hegar, Air National Guard – plaintiffs in groundbreaking suit challenging combat exclusion policy — in San Francisco, CA. (Photo courtesy: SWAN)

Four women have filed a legal challenge against Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying the policy that excludes women from combat puts them at a professional disadvantage and is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in a California federal court and includes the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network as a plaintiff along with:

  • Major Mary Jennings Hegar, a combat helicopter pilot in the California Air National Guard;
  • Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, a civil affairs soldier in the Army reserves;
  • Capt. Alexandra Zoe Bedell, a logistics officer in the Marine Corps reserves;
  • 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell, an active-duty Marine air support control officer.

The Executive Director of SWAN, Anu Bhagwati, wrote in a press statement:

Opening all assignments to qualified women and breaking the “brass ceiling” will help transform this culture and bring about the change that our military desperately needs in order to be a truly professional force in the 21st century.

Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain, told the Stars and Stripes the combat exclusion policy does not reflect modern warfare or military values.

“Rather than enforcing a merit-based system, today’s military bars all women, regardless of their qualifications, from access to prestigious and career-enhancing assignments, positions and schools, and thus is directly responsible for making service women second-class citizens.”

The Pentagon spokesman had no comment on the lawsuit, but defended Panetta’s record on women saying he opened up more than 14,000 positions that had been closed to women and lifted a rule not allowing women to live with combat units.

Suicide Is Not an Isolated Event and It’s Preventable

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta addresses the audience at the fourth annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference June 22, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Clinical psychologist David Barry, a lieutenant commander with  U.S. Public Health Service, summarized the Department of Defense and VA Suicide Prevention Conference:

“Throughout the conference, speakers emphasized the point that suicide isn’t an isolated event, and it’s preventable.”

Barry writes about the progress he witnessed at the annual conference and notes the support from leadership.

  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for pioneering and breaking “new ground in understanding the human mind and human emotion”
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke of removing “any distinction between behavioral and mental health”
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs EricShinseki called to target and prevent substance abuse as a means to prevent suicide and veteran homelessness.

You can learn more about the Defense Centers of Excellence programs aimed at preventing suicide HERE.

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