Women in Direct Ground Combat? Not Quite Yet

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Marine photo / Lance Cpl. Joshua B. Young

Lance Corporal Rachel Bartlett, 21, of Florence, Ore., readies to fire an M-240B machine gun at Camp Pendleton, Calif., last fall.

In a decided lack of fanfare, the Pentagon announced a new assignment policy for women, set to take effect on May 14. The so-called collocation rules have been set aside, a policy that had been in effect since 1993 when Title 10, sections 6015 and 8549 were repealed, allowing women to serve in combat aircraft and combat ships.

Although there was never a law against women serving in ground combat, the “intent of the law” was to prohibit it, so the collocation rules were made. This served to keep women out of direct ground combat by forbidding them to be assigned to units at the battalion level or below, or for them to be assigned to units that collocate with direct ground combat units (infantry, artillery, and tanks). The new policy opens many new occupations and billets to women.

It brings them closer to parity with their male peers for occupational specialties and positions that are required in order to be eligible for promotion to the top ranks. This is especially important for Army officers, where combat experience is a plus on one’s resume. It allows the Army to open six MOSs (Military Occupational Specialties) which include MLSR/HIMARS Crew, MLRS Operations Fire Specialist, Radar specialist, M1 Abrams Tank Systems Repairer, Artillery Mechanic, and Bradley Fighting Vehicle System Maintainer.

In the Navy, 60 new billets will open for female medical officers, hospital corpsmen and chaplains who can now be assigned to Marine Corps ground combat battalion staffs. In addition, the Army and the Marine Corps will be allowed to place qualified women on battalion-level combat staffs. The Army is intending to place women officers and NCOs on nine staffs initially, to see how they do. Once the assessment of their performance is complete, and a report to Congress is made, the process of slowly opening more billets and units to women may continue.

The Ground Combat Exclusion Policy is still in effect, however. No women will be assigned to combat billets, but the current practice of attaching women to combat units will continue. Although this meets the letter of the policy, it is still counter to the intent of the policy, which is to keep women out of ground combat. As we know from the last 10 years of war, women have engaged in ground combat, both in defensive and offensive operations. This practice also allows women to continue to serve in Female Engagement Teams in both the Army and the Marine Corps, which have become a vital part of our occupation of Afghanistan.

The Marines intend to send some officers and enlisted women to infantry training, but it is strictly for research purposes. No women will be assigned the combat MOS or be assigned to a combat unit, at least for the short term. The Marines are also developing gender-neutral physical standards based on combat tasks like removing wounded from the battlefield, setting up and taking apart heavy combat equipment, and marching 20 kilometers with 70 pounds of combat gear.

Undoubtedly some women will be able to handle such tasks, but it is a fear that both the Army and the Marine Corps may cite a little used provision of the Ground Combat Policy that allows them to exclude women from units if “most” women cannot meet the requirements. It is a subjective assessment of what “most” means. There is also a concern that the “requirements” could be deliberately structured to exclude women.

Overall, the evolution of women’s occupational parity is slow, but at least it is moving forward. It would be really nice to see the next female four-star admiral or general have an occupational specialty that includes combat, something that at this time can only be found in the Air Force or Navy. We’ll see how much longer it takes for that to happen.