Modern warfare brought women to the front
By Liz Navratil | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: January 27, 2013
Some of the most controversial wartime decisions of the last decade weren't made in tightly guarded corners of the Pentagon or the open chambers of Congress.
They came in the middle of an ill-defined, ever-evolving battlefield.
In the long-running debate over whether women should serve in combat, a 2005 incident in Iraq stands out. A male staff sergeant, his supply convoy unit under fire, asked for backup. A female soldier, getting there before her male counterparts, launched a grenade. Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester earned the Silver Star for her valor in combat -- launching an argument in military circles over whether she was even eligible.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan presented a new type of warfare, where improvised explosive devices or IEDs could bring the battlefield into places once safely behind the front line. This new reality made the separation of women from combat an impossibility. Commanders and troops alike struggled with trying to enforce the rules of the U.S. military's longstanding combat exclusion policy, which required keeping women from being assigned to units whose principal mission was to engage in battle.
Capt. Zoe Bedell oversaw an elite, all-female team of Marines tasked with speaking to and searching Afghani women in ways that men could not. Some commanders praised the female Marines. Other commanders balked, worrying they would violate the combat exclusion policy if they permitted the teams to leave the base.
In the end, the reality of 21st-century warfare, the competence of women troops and the practical issues associated with imposing combat exclusion won the day.
"Every time I visited the war zone, every time I've met with troops, reviewed military operations and talked to wounded warriors, I've been impressed with the fact that everyone -- men and women alike -- everyone is committed to doing the job," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said when he rescinded the ground combat exclusion policy on Thursday. "They're fighting together and dying together and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality."
Now, after decades of debate, the military finds itself in the difficult position of moving past a policy that many said was impossible to consistently enforce anyway and finding a way to accommodate the presence of women in areas where they haven't officially been before.
The 'reset' challenge
Capt. Bedell, of New York City, enrolled in the ROTC program when she was studying engineering and politics in college and transitioned into full-time Marine Corps life after she graduated in 2007. Five years later, she and three other women sued Mr. Panetta in the U.S. District of Northern California seeking an order enjoining him from enforcing the combat exclusion policy.
She deployed twice to Afghanistan -- once from October 2009 through April 2010 and once from September 2010 until April 2011.
On her first deployment, she worked primarily as a logistics officer, helping to coordinate the movement of troops and supplies from one location to another. She spent part of the rest of her time on a Female Engagement Team: "We all had day jobs and then the Female Engagement Team was in addition to that."
By the time she returned for her second deployment, the Marine Corps had ramped up its efforts to use the FETs, as Marines call them, and Capt. Bedell was now in charge of several of them.
Some of them performed medical work, others did smaller, goodwill tasks, such as making sure children made it to and from school safely. Some teams patrolled and would call in the locations of IEDs or hidden weapons caches.
Others performed clearing operations, searching Afghani women for weapons because local cultural norms prohibited men from being alone in the same room as women, let alone touching them.
"We had a silly phrase -- 'operationalizing cultural stereotypes,'" Capt. Bedell said.
Going on those missions presented challenges. Because the ground combat definition and assignment rule prohibited women from co-locating with combat units for prolonged periods of time, the FETs had to "reset" or return to a forward operating base every 45 days, the captain said.
"For every reset, we ended up getting into a fight with the commanders," she said. Some of them had to reschedule major operations around the reset. Some didn't want to let the women leave the base for fear that would violate the ground combat exclusion policy.
"We definitely had situations where the commanders weren't really sure about the policy or they had been told inaccurate things," Capt. Bedell said. One commander told her, "I don't want to be the first one to get a Female Engagement Team member killed. That's going to be a career-ruining move."
Adapting in the military
When they did go out, they faced a different set of obstacles.
The Department of Defense had said for some time that it was evaluating the roles women could play in the military. Last year, it opened up 14,000 news positions that would allow women to work alongside combat units. The first was taken by Mount Pleasant native Cicely Verstein, who is currently in basic training and plans to go on to become a maintenance worker, traveling with the tanks as they transport infantry members into battle.
While conducting its reviews, the Department of Defense said it needed to evaluate how a change in the combat exclusion policy would affect not just unit readiness and cohesion but also berthing and privacy concerns.
Opponents of the change have long argued that men and women need separate sleeping and showering arrangements. Some worried the presence of women in areas once open exclusively to men would make them a novelty and that men would either view them as weaker and in more need of protection than their male counterparts or see them as objects of intense sexual desire -- making them a distraction in a foxhole, a tank or other close quarters.
And then there were the smaller, daily concerns. It could take hours for convoys to travel from one place to another. How would the women go to the bathroom in the middle of nowhere? Where would they sleep?
Capt. Bedell said she knew women who might sneak around a corner to relieve themselves and others who did so in front of the men. Some companies now market a device that allows women to urinate while standing up.
At night, they might sleep in the same tent but hang a sheet to meet the privacy requirements. When they needed to share a single shower, they'd designate certain hours in which only women could use it.
"They're just ingenious," said Francoise Bonnell, executive director of the U.S. Army Women's Museum in Ft. Lee, Va., while describing the measures soldiers will take to adapt to their surroundings.
It's hard to know for sure how many women have experienced situations like those of Capt. Bedell and the Female Engagement Team members.
"The toughest history to collect is women who have served in the last 10 to 20 years, in part because they don't think of themselves as history. But I think also there's a little bit of that reflection of not wanting to draw attention to themselves because it's not about being a woman," Ms. Bonnell said.
Stepping into the fray
The 2005 case of Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester in Iraq encapsulates many of the elements on the debate over women in combat. Sgt. Hester, a member of the Kentucky Army National Guard serving in Iraq, became the first woman to earn the Silver Star for valor in combat since World War II.
Her unit was moving with a supply convoy in March 2005 when it was attacked by enemy fighters. She, her commander Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein and a male soldier were in the same area when Staff Sgt. Nein yelled that he needed someone to join him and help him launch grenades.
Sgt. Hester beat her fellow soldier to the front and began launching grenades before picking up her rifle. Twenty-seven insurgents died, six were wounded and one was captured in the fight.
For some commanders, the decision to allow Sgt. Hester to play that role would have been easy -- she was trained, she was there and they needed soldiers. For others, it would have been more difficult: Were they allowed to let her do that when she was technically barred from combat?
Her Silver Star honor created controversy in some conservative military circles, where people argued that women were not officially allowed to work in combat roles and thus shouldn't be eligible for the award.
If the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had front lines like those of previous conflicts, people might not think about the issue any more than they had in the past, said Col. Sharon M. Johnson, who studied the combat exclusion policy while earning her master's degree at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. But IEDs and other changes in technology have altered the way Americans operate in war.
"Anybody who's over there trying to help or to combat the War on Terror and to do things that the nation is asking us to do could be put in harm's way, whether they're driving to work, whether they're going down a block," Col. Johnson said.
The colonel, who deployed to Qatar and Kuwait while working with the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon, said the combat exclusion policy, combined with the absence of traditional front lines, placed commanders in a difficult situation. Many juggled the needs of their unit with the restrictions of the policy, uncertainty at times about how the women had been trained and their personal beliefs about whether women should serve on the front lines.
"I really did have empathy for them," she said. "You tie someone's hands with something as simple as a policy."
Each branch of service must present a plan this spring detailing how it will adjust to the lifting of the combat exclusion policy. Previously, the services had to prove why a position should be open to women. Now, they will have to prove why it should not be.
Each branch has until 2016 to apply for exemptions to keep certain positions closed to women. People on either side of the issue are anxiously waiting to see what that process will yield.
"What's interesting from my perspective is that it is not the talk of the town. It is kind of a whisper among female leaders," Col. Johnson said. "It's one of those things where we're kind of silently clapping that finally it's recognized that women do bring a lot more to the fight than we've been allowed to in the past.
"What they open up and when the services start to identify those positions that are not open to women is going to be a very interesting debate. You don't create a culture overnight."
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438