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Texas veterans speak out on possible military draft for women

HARLINGEN, Texas — Suzanne Byers says she does not approve of drafting women for combat service in the future, despite her 21 years of service in the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

"This is only my opinion, but I don't think women should be drafted," the Raymondville native said.

"I know there shouldn't be too much of a difference. If the female volunteers into the military, she should serve just exactly like her fellow soldiers. But as far as drafting females, no sir."

The Obama administration's recent decision to lift the ban on women in combat has opened the door for women to be drafted into combat units, according to legal experts and military historians.

The United States has never drafted women into military service. Current law compels men between age 18 and 25 to register for a military draft.

But that could change under the new women-in-combat policy, experts say.

Many military veterans in the Rio Grande Valley believe women should not be drafted.

One of them is Byers, born in Raymondville and a graduate of San Perlita High School.

She served in an Army artillery unit at Fort Smith, Ark., later worked in an administrative personnel post at the Pentagon, and also as a driver for officers, she said.

She never saw combat. But she was the only female soldier to earn the Artillery Order of Molly Pitcher Award for her artillery service, she said.

That is an honor named after a Revolutionary War wife who took over cannon-loading duties when her husband was killed, according to a U.S. Field Artillery Association website. Usually the award is for supportive service by the wife of a soldier in an Army artillery unit.

"I think the women would do an excellent job; they would find a way to cope," Byers said of combat service.

However, "Because they are child-bearing, if a woman is drafted there are a lot of physical things you do in the military. A woman's body could be damaged so she could not reproduce," she said.

If there were a shortage of male soldiers, then women soldiers should be ordered into combat, Byers said.

"I wouldn't want my daughter to go in the military unless she chose to," Byers said. "My sons, I basically expected them to."

Both her sons have served in the Army many years each, she said.

Drafting women may be acceptable for today's generation, but it was not to her generation, she said.

Today, many people join the military, or are staying in the service, from necessity, she said.

"I didn't go in until I was 31," Byers said. "There were no jobs; the economy was horrible."

Women serving locally on active duty in the armed forces did not want to comment for this story, saying they feared expressing their opinions because of rules against speaking to news media.

Army veteran Victor Garza, a former San Benito city commissioner and now chairman of San Benito's Veterans Advisory Board, also objects to drafting women.

Garza served in the Army in the 1970s, just after the Vietnam War, he said.

"I don't think it's appropriate," he said. "My fear is there are still some issues of women being in a hostile environment with our own troops. Putting them on the front lines would also put them in danger with the enemy, but also the possibility of rape and abuse."

Women would also be especially targeted for capture by the enemy, he said.

"I don't think it's a good thing. I know they've been out there helping the front lines, but being on the front lines, I think that's a bit risky.

"We're not talking about a woman who's going there as a nurse. We're talking about going elbow-to-elbow and doing combat," Garza said. "The man's (role) in our generation has always been to protect the woman.

"What am I going to do, as a man, if I have a woman next to me? Am I going to react differently to protect her? Probably. ... I think it would become more dangerous for our men. The focus would not be totally on what the mission is."

Garza defended his position.

"I'm not trying to be sexist or anything, it's just the way that we, as men, think," he said. "That instinct automatically comes up."

Female soldiers already have served in combat, including San Benito's Dolly Vinsant, a World War II Army nurse who died when her plane was shot down as she cared for wounded soldiers after she volunteered for one more mission. San Benito's Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital was named for her.

But Garza still thinks there are too many risks.

In Israel, one of the few countries in the world with mandatory military service for women, the draft is merely a thread in the country's social fabric.

Israeli-born Dalia Fima, now of South Padre Island, served in the Israeli army 32 years ago, and her two years of service were required by Israeli law.

Fima, who has dual American and Israeli citizenship, said she has lived in the United States for about 25 years.

"When you reach age 18, everyone is required to serve in the army," she said of Israeli policy.

Although service for women then was not as hard as for men, today all soldiers must perform equally. Fima was required to keep an M-16 rifle with her at all times, including at home, she said.

Back then, her job was to work on big tank guns and to operate tanks, but she was not allowed to serve in combat. Not so today, she said. Female Israeli soldiers do everything.

Only religious young people, such as those studying to become a rabbi, or those who are married, are exempted from the draft in Israel.

Asked whether women should be drafted, she said that it was not up to her to consider whether she liked the draft. There was nothing to discuss.

"That's the law. Everyone has to go into the military at age 18," she said matter-of-factly.

After reporting for compulsory military service, young people were sent to one month of basic training, then it was decided whether they were to be in the army or navy, she said. Then there would be more training.

Israeli military training is very strict, she said, everything was very tough.

Ricardo P. Pena, of Elsa, who was a staff sergeant in the Vietnam War and later served in Korea and Germany, said he doesn't believe women are physically or emotionally equipped for combat.

Men are dangerously distracted by women in combat situations, he said. In addition to wanting to protect women, young male soldiers' sexual urges are another distraction from their duties, he said.

If female soldiers are working with older men, such as senior sergeants or officers, there may be no problem, he said.

He once was involved in a situation in which an officer was crushed between a large Army truck and another vehicle, and a female medic fainted at the sight of the blood.

He had to move one vehicle, then remove the officer, who died despite his efforts. But in the meanwhile, the medic fainted, Pena said.

Still, Pena concedes some male soldiers also faint or get sick at the sight of blood.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
 

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