On The Front Lines: Better a Good Woman Than This Guy

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Camilla Fuhr / Fuhr Journalism

U.S. Army soldiers patrolling in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

My first thought was: “What is wrong with this kid?”

It was early 2002 and we were marching through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, only a few hundred yards from the Pakistani border. One of my younger soldiers was failing to keep up. He was “falling out” as we’d say in the Army. The thing was, we’d only just begun the march and his load was relatively light.

This infuriated the platoon. Falling out at that stage of a march, with the load he carried, under those circumstances is never acceptable for an infantry platoon. At one point, when the soldier began to sway under the weight of his pack, his team leader straightened him up on his feet and then slapped him in the back of the helmet, adding something to the effect of, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Eventually, we were forced to split up and carry some of the young soldier’s gear—adding extra weight for everyone else. Of course, no one was happy about this. It made the situation more dangerous.

Several months later, after we’d returned safely home to Fort Campbell, Ky., the soldier went AWOL. We never heard from him again.

Only years later, when I began working with veterans who were attempting to make inroads for women in the Army, did it dawn on me: I knew at least half a dozen female Army veterans, off-hand, who could have performed much better on that march than the unprepared male soldier. He was someone who really had no interest—or business—in being an infantryman.

I’ve trained with women and served with them. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my infantry company’s linguist, Kayla Williams, as we watched a man bleed to death on a Baghdad street. Later, I spent two years working for Assistant Secretary (now Congresswoman) Tammy Duckworth—who lost both legs and part of an arm as an air-assault helicopter pilot.

Like other women, they had the attributes that can carry a person through combat: guts, skill, and commitment—which plenty of men lack. And our Army and nation are better for it.

But when it comes to actually fighting in combat, the sticking point remains: could they have performed when sheer speed and strength are what get you through the moment? This is what gnaws at the infantryman and tank gunner. Guts, skill, and commitment are a lot, but they’re not everything.

Fortunately, since news of the impending change broke Wednesday, I haven’t heard a single note of substantive opposition to women holding combat jobs—so long as it’s understood that women will be expected to meet the same standards as men.

From conversations I’ve had with soldiers, it seems most agree: one fight, one standard.

How this will ultimately shake out, no one knows. There is evidence to suggest that relatively few women will be able to consistently meet the necessary physical standards. That may be true, but it’s nearly irrelevant to the larger point. Fair is fair and every American deserves the opportunity to serve his or her country however he or she sees fit.

If they don’t make it—if only a scattered few women can meet the rigorous standards of Ranger School or life in an infantry platoon— at least we’ll be able to sleep at night knowing we did the right thing. And we may even be surprised.

Either way, no woman will ever have to look at a situation like the one my platoon faced and say, “I could have done better than that, if I’d only been given a shot.”

Brandon Friedman is a Truman National Security Fellow and author of The War I Always Wanted. He served as a rifle platoon leader and executive officer with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.

10 comments
andreslazo
andreslazo

I couldn't agree with you more.

Boots on the ground, if women want to fight (which they already have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for years) then give them the same standards. I too knew soldiers and even higher ups in the chain of command that didn't have the "guts, skill, and commitment" that is necessary for survival in combat.


Combat medics, Military Police, and other Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) trained specialties already have female soldiers on the front-line. As a fellow military veteran told me today this gives them recognition today and honors the many lives lost in these wars on terrorism.

atpcliff
atpcliff

You are RIGHT ON with this article. When we have female volunteers, who can meet the standard, in combat positions, they will be taking the place of males who don't want to be there. The combat effectiveness of our units, and the overall effectiveness of our military will improve.

It has been crap what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have forced women into combat roles, illegally, because we didn't have enough men. While at the same time, not letting women into the most prestigious positions, by telling them they aren't allowed to see combat.

Rakkasan3187Vet
Rakkasan3187Vet

Personally, I am curious who that "soldier" was, but more importantly, who his team leader, squad leader, and platoon sergeant were.   Ultimately as a leader of men in the infantry, you are responsible for the training, and ability of those you lead.  All units from time to time get the bags of &$%^ , and you either make them into infantrymen, or you cut them loose, be it to HHC, or some other place where they can be charptered out  or re-classed.

JonnLilyea
JonnLilyea

Brandon, you know I love you, man, but I can come up with some stories about ate up female soldiers. Would they represent the entire population of females in the Army? Nope. So I guess your point goes right over my head. We all had poor troops, I probably had more than you could dream about. Every platoon I took over was of the Heartbreak Ridge variety and there were five of them - but that doesn't justify inflicting this poor policy decision on some poor young platoon sergeant I've never met.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

"One fight one standard" sums up the opinion of just about every vet and active duty solider I have spoken to. 

Now that we are moving on women in combat positions I would also like to see some discussion on either ending the selective service or expanding it to include ALL able bodied Americans when they turn 18.

BrandonFriedman
BrandonFriedman

@Rakkasan3187Vet He was a new soldier, sent as a replacement near the end of the deployment. He had been with the platoon for two weeks.

atpcliff
atpcliff

@JonnLilyea 

So you're saying you wouldn't want women who performed better than those underperforming men? If it was me, I want everyone to be able to do their job, and I don't care if the are female or gay or straight. They do their job, I do mine, and we all work together.

atpcliff
atpcliff

@SwiftrightRight 

Selective Service will now include women, and they will be subject to the draft. But, the draft will not happen, because draft rules have changed. In ALL the past US drafts, the wealthy and the politically connected could get out of it...but not anymore. Because of these new draft rules, Congress will not reinstate the draft, because it would mean that their kids and their grandkids could be drafted, which they will not allow. They will continue to have an all-volunteer army, and use the lower class kids to do their fighting.


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