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On Women in Combat, from One Who’s Been There

US Army Spc. Jennie Baez in combat in Iraq, 2006. (Photo: US Army)

US Army Spc. Jennie Baez in combat in Iraq, 2006. (Photo: US Army)

Today, guest blogger Lana Melendez discusses the Pentagon’s decision to allow women in front-line combat roles. 

Like most Americans, I have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of women in combat.  But unlike the majority, I have been one. And as many good stories as I have to tell at the local VFW, I have more nightmares and regrets.  I would be happy to save anyone from my view of the world, especially our daughters and mothers of our future generations.

The decision to end the direct combat exclusion will allow women to officially serve in capacities already working in Iraq and Afghanistan and even to allow women in submarines, which seems not so much a stretch since women have been deploying with the men and are already assigned to Navy ships for years. And women have been witness to, and in, danger of the bloody battlefield since mankind started fighting wars thousands of years ago. So, this is hardly the door buster decision the public is ranting about. But it does seem to retrigger the GI Jane debate of women volunteering to serve in a combat role fighting for a country that despite all of the strides in gender equality, still can only see its women as protectors, not killers.

“Women and children first”. Yes, still this is our first plan of action in hostage negotiation because it always works. And even though we know that both genders are susceptible to rape, it wasn’t until we had our first female POW in Iraq that our country was concerned about sexual assault against our troops caught behind enemy lines. We still maintain that innocence, and woman’s natural role to care for and bear children are priorities for protection in our society. It is very hard to undo this social norm.

There are some military men who say that if a woman can do the same job and meet the same physical standards, they will gladly fight alongside us. And in most jobs, we already do. But the problem is that their desire to be progressive is not as great as their instinctual need to protect or to dominate when it comes to combat or survival.

I traveled with a team of 9 other soldiers, all men, great leaders, skilled, trained, experienced and I packed the same weight, hiked the same distance and carried the same weapon as my male counterparts. But with any real threat, I could see the change, whether it was an extra step or look or gesture, they moved to protect me first and though it never became a fatal choice, it could have been.

There are also the majority of soldiers who just do not want women to fight alongside them. They don’t believe that women can meet the standard, that like the status quo, that don’t think women were built for the battlefield. These are likely the men that women would be going into combat with. Can this perspective be changed even after years of positive experiences?  Or is this so ingrained that it’s almost evolutionary? Ask them away from a camera and microphone, and find out they are probably not even willing to try.

So, what do we do? We can’t stop progress. As Americans, it is against our creed to continue to live in discrimination.  Just because some people cannot accept the equality of others, we don’t still grant them equality. There are women who want the job and who can do the job, despite any argument you or I could find against it. So, the question is how do we get their comrades in arms, and the country as a whole, to trust them to do it.  I think we should follow the Israelis, and as our Marines have already started, create all women units, give them the job and the mission. Though segregation seems like a step backward, it gives women the true test without bias getting in their way. Maybe, it’ll be like other glass ceilings we’ve broken and they will put our fears to rest.  But honestly, front line killing machine is one job at which I hope women are not better.

women in combatLana Melendez served in the US Army from 1991-1998 and then re-enlisted 2002-2005. As an Arabic Linguist, she worked as an interrogator and an interpreter in US peacekeeping missions and in the Global War on Terrorism.  

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One Comment

  1. JakeJanuary 25, 2013 at 12:27 amReply

    I think Lana makes a very good (albiet oblique point) about what women in front line combat roles really mean. It’s one thing to be rationally/morally egletarian and treat individuals the same, but in practical experience the actual soldiers themselves are likely to behave in ways more inline with cultural norms, especially when our culture holds them in high esteem.

    An example of this would be a male (civilian or soldier) putting themselves in harms way to protect a female. We would laud this behavior in almost all cases, but as Lana points out, in the battlefield the ramifications of this could be extremely final.

    A nightmare scenario would be if we found out that men in units with females were more likely to die, which could easily happen if they are all jumping infront of bullets for the female soldiers.

    How do you change this behavior when society approves, almost universally of this type of male “chivalry”?

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