HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The notion that women in the armed forces might be allowed to serve alongside men in combat provoked sharp reactions Friday among a sampling of Marines on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan, suggesting a heated debate yet to come.

“It’s very tough, what we have to go through,” said Lance Cpl. John Rolfes of 2nd Battalion, Third Marines, deployed with a Marine infantry unit at Patrol Base Jaker in Nawa. “I personally don’t know any women that could fulfill that role.”

A military advisory panel on diversity in the armed forces signaled this week that it may recommend that female troops should be able to serve in combat units without any restrictions, calling the current prohibition an out-of-date idea that unnecessarily discriminates against women.

The recommendation, if eventually approved by military officials, would open front-line posts to military women for the first time. Women are now restricted to serving in combat support roles.

At Patrol Base Jaker, 1st Sgt. Michael Cedeno of Company G, 2nd Battalion, Third Marines, was himself conflicted about the proposal. He said he’d served in communication units with women, and he acknowledged that those with the Marine’s Female Engagement Teams that interact with Afghan women are already on the front lines when attached to infantry units.

“A Marine is a Marine,” Cedeno said. “The females — they’re absolutely warriors.”

Now in an infantry unit where no females have served, he said he also sees potential problems in integrating women.

“There’d be a drastic adjustment that would have to be done,” Cedeno said. “There’d definitely have to be some type of trial period to see how it goes.”

Yet Maj. Juarez Morgan, with the Third Civil Affairs Group at Jaker, had few reservations.

“I’m probably the flaming liberal around here, but as long as you can do the job required — female, gay, white, whatever — as long as it doesn’t hamper the mission, I’m all for it,” Morgan said. “I think women should be able to fight the same as anybody else. They’re already out there exposed to the same things we are.”

But the Marine infantry mission is to “locate, close with and destroy the enemy,” and some Marines think that’s an inappropriate mission for women, even if they could manage the tough physical requirements for infantry troops.

“I don’t think America is ready to send its daughters off to fight the wars for them,” said Lance Cpl. Kyle Harpster, of 2nd Battalion, Third Marines.

Moreover, he said, deployed combat Marines have little space or privacy.

“Living close like this,” Harpster said, “I just don’t think it’d be a good idea.”

Similarly, Cpl. Josh Bernethy was against the idea because, he said, “A man’s going to react differently if a woman dies than if a man dies.”

Spc. David Brown with the Wiesbaden, Germany-based 1st Armored Division’s Special Troops Battalion said allowing women in combat roles would diminish camaraderie in some units.

“They don’t belong there,” said Brown. “It would be more distraction and it’s a matter of being able to handle all situations. ... They are a liability in some situations.”

But Spc. John McTyre from the 2nd Military Intelligence Battalion in Wiesbaden said he thinks allowing women in combat would be a step forward for the military.

“That’s why we have EO (Equal Opportunity program),” McTyre said. “If we’re going to have the EO program, we might as well live it to the fullest. That is EO’s full potential.”

First Sgt. Matthew Shea, of Special Troops Battalion, 1st Armored Division, agreed.

“It’s 2011,” Shea said. “I fully believe there are women in the Army that can serve alongside folks in infantry and armor units. If they have the physical ability and strength to serve alongside those units, then why not?”

Sgt. Meredith Burns, a Marine reservist with a Female Engagement Team — who had arrived Friday at Jaker with another female Marine and their female interpreter to become one of about five women on the patrol base — also agreed.

She said members of the FET walk 15 kilometers a day.

“It sucks, but they do it,” Burns said. “We’re out here doing similar jobs. I’m doing the same things they do, I’m patrolling the same way they do.”

Women’s capabilities have historically been underestimated, Burns said. When they were first allowed into the Marines, women only had to run 1.5 miles to pass their physical training tests; now they run three miles, she said.

What makes sense to Burns?

“Let the females decide.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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