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.