The rise of female commanders in combat arms
By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 15, 2020
WASHINGTON — The Army has been slowly integrating women into ground combat units since the Defense Department opened all military jobs to all troops in 2015. The initiative garnered a good deal of media attention for female “firsts” throughout the force. Now, five years later, women have expanded their footprint in combat arms and are taking command of units that have been exclusively male for centuries.
Capt. Candice Bowen took command of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, last month. She is one of the first black women to take command of a rifle company in the National Guard and the first female infantry commander in Virginia. The company’s history traces back to Confederate general Stonewall Jackson’s brigade.
“I think in general people have their own perceptions of what a female officer is going to be. It’s ‘Maybe women shouldn’t be in combat arms,’ but at the end of the day, a capable soldier is a capable soldier,” Bowen said. “The Army is changing, it’s evolving, it’s growing, we’re making sure we have the best people for the job. That’s it. As long as the standards don’t change, let the best person compete.”
Gender integration into combat arms kicked off in August 2015 when captains Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver became the first women to graduate Ranger School, one of the most grueling military courses in the world. A year later, Griest became the Army’s first female infantry officer. Haver took command of a rifle company in the 82nd Airborne Division in 2018, and she has since been promoted to major.
“Possibly going into combat arms is a daunting thing to look at; it’s a dirty, thankless job and you’re required to do bad things to bad people and that is not for everyone. But sometimes you’re too hard on yourself thinking you cannot do those things,” Haver said in a panel discussion at West Point in 2018. “When I have conversations with other females about going into combat arms and if I hear anything other than they want to get after it, it’s disappointing. If you’re not going into the infantry because you truly want to lead men and women to close with and destroy the enemy, which is our job, then you don’t need to do that.”
Bowen, 31, commissioned as a military police officer in 2012. She deployed to Qatar with 3rd Battalion in 2016 and after her return, immediately went to Afghanistan with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, where she earned her combat action badge. She made the switch to infantry in 2019 after Virginia scaled-down military police forces.
Her move to infantry was amid the Army’s “Leaders First” effort , which started in 2016. The goal was to place female leaders in combat units ahead of junior enlisted women joining the ranks. Critics of the policy and even the Army have said the measure slowed down gender integration. All leaders start as newly recruited privates, but privates couldn’t necessarily be assigned to a combat unit without a woman in a leadership role, meaning the military had to entice female officers and NCOs to switch jobs. Gender integration has been slowed by not having enough female infantry and armor leaders available, according to a statement from the Army in June. Promising female officers have been encouraged to switch from support to infantry, armor or cavalry. But the Army found that only a tiny fraction of female officers and NCOs were interested into joining the infantry or armor fields. The policy shifted to companies only being required to have female E5 of any military job to be in a unit before junior enlisted women can join the ranks.
“I understand there are very few women in combat arms, but we need more people in combat arms period. [Women enlisting] is as big of an issue as people decide it is. We want the best soldiers for the job,” Bowen said.
Women are still a minority in the Army, and especially in combat arms. Women make up just 14% of the Army’s enlisted and 19% of its officer corps, according to 2018 data from the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. foreign policy think tank. The Marine Corps has the fewest number of women, with 8% enlisted and 9% officers.
“The Army as a whole is predominantly male; it’s not new to be one of the only females in a group,” said Capt. Amie Kemppainen, an Iraq War veteran.
Kemppainen, 46, took command of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, in March. She is the first woman in the Michigan National Guard to command an infantry company. She joined the infantry after 25 years of service in support units.
“I probably wasn’t what people thought would be the ideal candidate. Physically, you’ve got to hold your own, male or female, and lead from the front,” she said.
Thrust into combat
The decision to open combat arms came after nearly two decades of post-9/11 wars, where women were thrust into combat for the first time on a large scale due to the nature of the conflicts. The lines blurred between combat and support units, and the traditional front line was erased by an insurgency that could take the fight to American troops anywhere. In previous wars, men in combat arms units usually held the front.
The breaking point for the Defense Department came in 2012 when a lawsuit was filed by Army Reservists, Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Haring, accusing the government of violating the constitutional rights of women by excluding them from ground combat units solely due to gender, and arguing that the ban hinders careers.
“This limitation on plaintiffs’ careers restricts their current and future earnings, their potential for promotion and advancement, and their future retirement benefits,” the women said in the suit filed in U.S. District Court.
Women have been playing a major role in ground combat for years leading up with the lawsuit. However, until recently, women have had to stick to support roles. When the ban was lifted, women could enlist and commission into roles that are exclusively combat-focused, such as special forces, infantry and cavalry scouts.
“To me it wasn’t so much a real change, it was the policy catching up with reality. Women becoming actual infantrymen is a change,” said Kayla Williams, an Iraq War veteran and senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, a national security think tank. “It was driven by what has been happening already.”
Williams served as a linguist in the 101st Airborne during the invasion of Iraq. She said it is critical to have women to talk to and search female civilians on Middle East battlefields.
“It was a combination that women were needed in these positions, women were excelling in combat, and there was recognition from the public that no one freaked out that women were dying in combat. ... We’ve had women killed in World War II, but the type of jobs they were doing were generally not happening on the scale they are now. ... In Vietnam there was a relatively small number of women as a percent, the majority of them were nurses. It was traumatic, some of them were killed.”
Now, there are 680 enlisted women in the active Army serving as infantry, tankers or cavalry scouts, and 260 officers. There are 55,000 enlisted men in the infantry and 7,000 officers. On the armor and cavalry side, there are 18,000 male enlisted and 3,000 officers, according to the most recent data from the Defense Department.
The numbers are much smaller in the National Guard: There are 37 enlisted infantry women (28,524 men), 11 cavalry scouts (4,842 men), eight tankers (1,619 men), and none serving in mortars, where there are 2,950 men. The Guard has 26 female infantry officers (3,560 men) and 22 armor/cavalry officers (1,124 men), according to the National Guard Bureau.
However, 2020 is the first year the National Guard saw female officers leave combat arms. Last year there were 33 female infantry officers and 27 in armor. But this year could be an outlier since the Guard saw its first wave of women commission into armor and infantry in late 2016, seven in each branch, the number roughly doubled.
The Marine Corps is an entirely different story. There are no female infantry officers across the entire branch, but two have graduated from the Corps’ infantry officer course. The Marine Corps has the smallest number of personnel in the military and the smallest number of female officers. Of the nearly 22,000 officers in the Marine Corps, as of May, only 1,877 are women, according to the Defense Department.
Kemppainen said there was skepticism when she showed up to her infantry company as a platoon leader, restarting her career after initially enlisting in 1994.
“The real goal was that the only real way to earn command was to start from the beginning,” she said.
Part of integrating is making it clear things in an infantry unit will operate as they always have, Kemppainen said. But the initial concerns on her arrival to what had been a male-only regiment for nearly 200 years were mostly skepticism that any new lieutenant would face.
“The biggest reward for me was guys who were skeptical became my biggest allies and supporters,” she said. “It was necessary to prove I can hack it physically. But that is also the same with men.”
There were a few logistical and cultural speedbumps, but Kemppainen said they were mostly a nonissue.
“There were conversations of where a female sleeps, whether in the barracks or field. Those were some new conversations we had to have. What we did was try to approach it as business as usual and not make it a big deal,” she said. “There was one time we were in the barracks, I was reading the Ranger Handbook and some of the guys were playing cards, cutting jokes, messing with each other. One of them said something, there was a pregnant pause and they waited for my reaction. I fired something back and it was then clear it was business as usual. ... as soon as they realized that was true and not lip service, we never had a problem.”
Capt. Emily Lilly also made the jump to combat arms from her original support role. Lilly is a North Carolina Guard armor officer with the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, which is deployed to the Middle East. She originally branched as an ordnance officer in 2013, but quickly switched to combat arms and was in the first group of women to graduate armor officer school in December 2016. She graduated Ranger School in 2018.
“I wanted to do cool stuff. My grandfather was a cavalry officer,” she said. “He commissioned in 1936. ... When WWII broke out, he trained as a tanker at Fort Knox and headed to North Africa and then Sicily as an armor company commander.”
Lilly, 41, said being in the first group of female officers to join armor and cavalry units led to a lot of media attention. She said there are “definitely some guys behind the times,” but she was fortunate to have great leaders through her career who supported her. However, her trailblazing sparked a series of crude remarks online.
“We definitely got our share of negative attention on social media,” Lilly said. “I remember one comment on an article on ‘the first 13 women armor officers’ in which someone commented, ‘more like the next 13 women in the Army to get pregnant.’
“Four years later, many of us have been made captain, we’ve done combat deployments and completed tough schools, but none of us got pregnant.”
Second Lt. Colleen O’Callaghan serves in 1st Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment of the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. She recently returned from a civil disturbance mission in the White House area.
She is the Ohio National Guard’s first female infantry platoon leader, but she said all her issues were related to men being almost uncomfortably respectful.
“I think the biggest thing women run into is people trying to do the right thing, but they do the wrong thing,” O’Callaghan said. “It’s more of the [junior soldiers] being afraid of doing something that’ll make me uncomfortable, I think they’re afraid of bringing down a ... complaint.”
O’Callaghan, 27, said a routine occurrence is when someone is talking to a group of officers, giving the regular courtesy of addressing the group as “gentlemen,” then quickly correcting themselves by adding “and ma’am.”
“I don’t care if people call me a gentleman, or sir,” she said. “It’s not necessary to call out the one woman.”
O’Callaghan expressed some frustration of early efforts to segregate her from her troops in barracks, saying getting her own space during training was detrimental to her ability to lead. Where the Ohio Guard often trains, at Camp Atterbury, Ind., the barracks for soldiers offer no privacy, and gender-specific bathrooms and showers are virtually nonexistent.
“I don’t think there should be any segregations, if you’re in a platoon you’re in a platoon and should not be apart,” she said. “I usually say I want to use the shower at a certain time and just make sure that’s cleared. It isn’t much of an issue.”
But some women are concerned that a sizable chunk of men are not ready for female leadership in combat, saying the masculine culture prevalent in the Army has vastly outdated views on women.
“The biggest issue that I don’t think I would have faced as a man is the negative reactions to decisiveness,” said a junior Army support officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “As a female in the military, you’re either a pushover or a bitch, there’s no in-between. If I were a man, I’d be the fearless leader — the alpha. As a woman, I’m cocky, I’m the bitch. I’m the one who is a stickler. Having a voice as a female in a male-dominated field is difficult enough, but once you find your voice, you still can’t win.”
The junior Army officer recently saw another woman take command of an infantry company, and she said most of the male feedback was “pretty standard,” saying some of the soldiers are “sexist for the sake of power dynamics ... needing the boys club to remain.”
“Most men are like ‘as long as she met the same standards’ but they fail to realize that comment in and of itself is dripping in sexism,” she said. “They wouldn’t ask that of an incoming male commander, they just assume he has.”
Capt. Candice Bowen, center, takes command at a ceremony of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. She is the Virginia National Guard's first infantry commander, and one of the first black female combat arms officers in the Army.
TERRA C. GATTI/ARMY NATIONAL GUARD