WASHINGTON — Women in the military must have the same opportunities as men to take on grueling and dangerous combat jobs, whether loading 50-pound artillery shells or joining commando raids to take out terrorists, defense leaders declared Thursday as they ordered a quarter-million positions open to service members regardless of gender.
As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, signed an order wiping away generations of limits on women fighting for their country, the military services said they would begin a sweeping review of the physical requirements. At the same time they acknowledged that women have been fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade.
Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
The leaders said no physical standards will be lowered just to send more women closer to the battlefront.
“I fundamentally believe that our military is more effective when success is based solely on ability and qualifications and on performance,” Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference.
“Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.“
It won’t happen quickly or easily. But in the end, he said, the U.S. military and America will be stronger for it.
Dempsey did not rule out women serving even as members of elite special operations forces, including the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEALs, whose members killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Smith, 43, Houston, Minn.
Michelle Smith knows women can serve in combat roles. As a helicopter crew chief with the Minnesota National Guard, she flew more than 130 combat missions in Iraq, including a historic all-female mission on Christmas Day in 2007.
“I believe women should be able to do whatever they want to do,” she said. “If you’re interested in it, try it.”
But after nearly 23 years in the military — including two deployments and six years of active duty — Smith has reservations about women serving in some positions.
She draws a line between combat support roles such as hers and the type of missions carried out by infantry troops. Both involve contact with the enemy — there are no front lines in modern warfare — but the mission conditions couldn’t be more different.
Smith said women are perfectly capable of meeting the physical and emotional demands, but would be medically vulnerable without the ability to bathe.
“Hygienically speaking it is unsafe for a woman … we’re talking 90 days out in the field with no ability to shower… It is not healthy for a woman to be exposed to that kind of environment. They will get infections,” she said. “Even though I flew in combat missions, I was able to go home and take a shower.”
When she was 20 years old and joining up, Smith said she would have relished the opportunity to be in a combat unit.
“I’ve always done things that have been outside the norm,” she said. “I like good aggressive, physical work.”
But speaking by phone from Fort Leonard Wood, where she is undergoing medical evaluations for her back and awaiting discharge from the Army Reserve, Smith concedes that her years of service have extracted a toll on her body.
Rachel Beauchene, 26; Josh Beauchene, 25; La Crosse
Rachel Beauchene wasn’t looking for a combat experience when she joined the Army in 2004, but she would have liked to have the option.
Now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, she’s glad to see the military recognize that modern warfare has already put many female troops in the line of fire.
“There are women who are already in those combat roles,” she said. “Now they’re finally getting that acknowledgment that they’re out there. They’ll be able to get recognition, combat pay.”
Beauchene served two years in South Korea, where she worked as an Army broadcast journalist, but she points out that she went through the same basic training as her male counterparts.
Her husband, Josh Beauchene, served in the Wisconsin National Guard for seven years, including stints in Kuwait and Iraq.
During the second deployment, there were about 10 women assigned to Beauchene’s infantry unit. Most were mechanics or support specialists, Beauchene said, but they went along when the unit was on supply runs, which often involved enemy contact.
“It isn’t like World War II or Korea,” he said. “Anything can happen at any time, anywhere.”
Despite some initial hesitancy from the men, Beauchene said they quickly learned they could trust their female counterparts.
He doesn’t see why women shouldn’t be allowed in full combat roles, providing they want to be there and can meet the qualifications.
“It’s always going to be something based on training,” he said. “It’s not going to be a gender makeup … it’s going to be the training.”
Ray Boland, 73, Sparta
Thursday’s announcement that the Department of Defense is lifting the ban on women serving in combat roles wasn’t shocking to Ray Boland, who served 30 years on active duty in the Army and retired as commander of Fort McCoy.
In 1978, two of the Army’s first female helicopter pilots were assigned to the aviation battalion he led in Hawaii.
“This idea of broadening opportunity for women in the military has been going on for 35 years,” Boland said. “I think it’s just another step in an evolution that’s been going on for quite some time.”
While his battalion had to make some “cultural adjustments,” they adapted, and women have been flying ever since.
Boland expects relatively few women will be interested in those front-line combat jobs, but he said the decision to open them up is little more than a formality.
“We’re talking about a fine line between duty positions and exposure (to combat),” he said. “Women were exposed fully in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in support-type roles... It’s just a technicality of whether someone has the opportunity to be assigned to any position they want.”