Asking Too Much from Our Fighting Women

by Elaine Donnelly

Over the weekend, the New York Times had a long article on women serving in the military. I stand in awe of the courage of the Marine women featured in the article — and all the women who volunteer for dangerous female-engagement teams and similar missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Capt. Emily Naslund, the women’s team commander quoted in the piece, has our brave soldiers and Marines exactly right:

You’ve got 19- and 20-year-olds walking around in the world’s most dangerous place, knowing what could happen to them, and they’re willing to do that anyway, and they’re willing to do that with passion.

However, even though women are doing everything asked of them, the Pentagon is asking of them too much. Many years ago, a Vietnam veteran and author by the name of James Webb, now a U.S. senator from Virginia, recognized that women exposed to close combat on the same basis as men would suffer more, given the impact on their identity as women. This article suggests that Webb’s prediction was true.

The article states that “the female Marines have daily skirted the Pentagon rules restricting women in combat.” Actually, the women are not the ones to blame for “skirting the rules.” Pentagon officials — especially in the Army — are primarily responsible for disregarding both the congressional-notification law and longstanding DoD policy on female soldiers and Marines in or near direct ground combat.

The article suggests that the Marines are making an effort to be in compliance, in order to accomplish unique, socially sensitive missions for which women are better qualified than men. But as we wrote in this CMR Policy Analysis in 2007, the Army’s policy since 2005 has been “Almost Anything Goes.”

The female search-and-engagement teams should be recognized and supported with sufficient training, but the Army, which refuses to comply with policy and law, won’t make changes in an orderly fashion justified by military necessity.

In Afghanistan, all of our soldiers and Marines, both men and women, are serving in harm’s way. But that is not the same as direct ground combat (DGC), which is correctly defined as “deliberate offensive action attacking the enemy while under fire.” When Army and Marine infantry and Special Operations Forces liberated Baghdad in March 2003 and Fallujah in November 2004, they engaged in direct ground combat. Even in training, these units should remain all-male. The missions of women in the military have changed over time, but there still is no need to treat women exactly like men.

At the CMR website, there is an article on the 115 women who have given their lives in service to our country in the current wars in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. The most recent female soldier to die was Army Pfc. Barbara Vieyra, 22, of Mesa, Arizona. She was killed by an IED/RPG attack in Afghanistan on September 18, leaving behind a young daughter, Evelyn. We mourn the loss of any soldier, but it is troubling to see so many single mothers being sent to fight our wars.

Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness.