Women in Combat: Listening to Those Who Have Been There

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REUTERS / Shannon Stapleton

When I heard Leon Panetta’s announcement about lifting the combat restrictions on women in the military, I immediately thought of former Army National Guard Sergeant Paigh Bumgarner.

Bumgarner had deployed to Iraq, where she had served as a convoy gunner in a unit that came under fire.

“Once we got through,” Bumgarner recalls, “they tried to hit us with a VBED [vehicle-borne explosive device], but I ordered ‘No one gets close to this convoy, so it was taken out, a confirmed kill.”

Bumgarner told me, in a interview for my book, When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans, that she put the remains of her best friend in a body bag. She got the medics to bandage up the soldiers who had sustained shrapnel damage.

As she recalls, “I remember during the craziness of everything, the first sergeant [we were escorting] came up and tried to take over, and I was like, ‘I’m in control of this convoy….After that, all the guys were like, ‘I’ll go anywhere with you. I’ll follow you anywhere.’”

As the nation’s experts debate what the new ruling means, and whether women are in fact capable of serving on equal terms with men, we would all do well to listen to some real experts: female combat veterans.

As I talked to more than 50 women who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan—or both—I was struck by how determined many of these women were to serve their country on the battlefield. Army Staff Sergeant Jamie Rogers told me, “As a soldier, it’s something that you always want to do. For myself, I felt it was my obligation and that’s what I had been training for all these years, to do my job in combat. And I was very honored. I got to lead soldiers in combat, and I proved to myself that all this training was worthwhile.”

Rogers, who was in the military police, was out on patrol 12 hours of every 24. As she said of the experience, “It’s very life-changing.” While civilians may still see women in the military as being marginal, no female soldier I ever talked to saw herself as anything less than a military professional on par with her male comrades in arms.

As one West Point graduate explained to me, it felt as though she had been reading technical manuals on how to ride a bicycle—but to really be a soldier, she had to get on the bike itself. I heard variations of this sentiment from many women. And of course, many of the women I talked to did serve as explosives-sniffing dog handlers, military police whose jobs involved busting down doors and conducting house-to-house searches, and convoy gunners like Bumgarner.

Yet while they, and everyone they worked with and for, knew that they were in combat, they were still being denied full credit for their service on the front lines.

The grit they exhibited was extraordinary: Army Captain Kelly Nocks, for instance, was leading a convoy in 2003 when her unarmored Humvee ran over an IED, blowing up her leg. She had to undergo 18 surgeries and was in danger of losing her leg.

Yet Captain Nocks fought as hard as she could to regain her strength so she could pass the physical fitness test. When I talked to her in 2007, she was considered deployment-ready, although she was not allowed to bear weight, crawl, or run. As she told me, “I know I’m going back. I will deploy. I still think that I’m doing great things, that I can continue in my job and stay in the Army.”

browder_when_big

UNC Press

When I hear people question the physical strength and stamina of female troops, I only wish I could introduce them to Kelly Nocks.

As the nation debates what it will mean for women to participate in combat, it is easy to lose sight of some basic truths: that in our two most recent wars, over 280,000 women have served in combat zones in which there is very little distinction between front lines and rear support, and they have served with distinction.

As Army Sergeant First Class Gwendolyn-Lorene Lawrence, who served in Bosnia in 1996, said, “The military was an opportunity. The Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines—all the branches would say, ‘Okay, women, prove your point. Prove you’re citizens.’ We shot that. We went over and beyond to say, ‘Here we are. We are citizens. We deserve the right to defend our country in whatever capacity we can.’”

As recently as 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment came within a hair’s breadth of passing—and then failed because opponents raised the specter of women in combat. With Defense Secretary Panetta’s announcement, we have come a giant step closer for American women to become full citizens in every sense of the word.

Laura Browder is a professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond. Her most recent book is When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans, with photographs by Sascha Pflaeging.

28 comments
viviansanchez943
viviansanchez943

there is relatively no logical argument you can make as to why women should not serve in infantry combat units. Other than sexist, ignorant or otherwise opinions. Females who are already being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are already seeing combat. There is no standard line that marks the battlefield anymore. Women are already serving in airborne Divisions as combat medics or guarding checkpoints as part of the marine corps Lioness Program.

lynnlm
lynnlm

Women in the Israeli Defense Forces have successfully served in combat roles with valor and honor since the country was founded.

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

Protect Our Defenders partners with Attorney Susan Burke, Burke PLLC to advance lawsuits filed against the DoD and service academies for repeatedly ignoring rape, sexual assault and harassment, failing to prosecute perpetrators and retaliating against the victim.
Remarks of Susan Burke
January 23, 2013
Washington, D.C.
Protect Our Defenders Lackland Media Briefing
We are a democracy. We pride ourselves on civilian control over the military. Yet, year in and year out, our elected officials – the civilian leadership that is supposed to be exercising oversight and control – keeps delegating back to the military the task of eradicating rape and sexual assault. The military is not able to solve this problem. They have had decades. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result. We cannot delegate the solution to the problem to the military. We need to have legislation passed by Congress in this session, and and we need that legislation to take justice, the power – the adjudicatory power – out of the conflicted and biased hands of the chain of command and put it in impartial hands. . . It must stop and it must stop now. And every member of Congress – the senators and congressmen – they need to look at this issue and realize we cannot keep sending people into battle and give their lives and then turn around and expect them to have to go through their chain of command to get justice. It’s not fair. It’s not Constitutional. And I ask all of you in this room to join with the effort to make sure that we do right by our service members, we do right by our veterans, and we stop this disgraceful state of affairs. Thank you very much.
http://www.protectourdefenders.com/protect-our-defenders-testifies-before-house-armed-services-committee/#burke

Wangeshi23
Wangeshi23

If you read the navytimes article I posted, they explain that on a job by job basis, the job requirements will be established that all men and women have to pass in order to go into combat. It also clearly states that not ALL women are designed for combat, just as not all men are designed for combat. They're not lowering the standards below reason that would put anyone at risk or put people in positions where they're incapable of succeeding. If you read other articles, there are many women already in combat, living weeks on end without showers, and holding their own no problem, but aren't getting the credit they deserve because they were not "officially" in combat. If women want to give their lives for this (and some of you seem to think this is completely idiotic), it's not any more idiotic than the men willing to do the same and they should be given that opportunity. 

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

There are a number of books published on women in war, and not all of them portray every female as an Audie Murphy type. They range from Browder's promotional style, to another author's more realistic "Lonely Soldier": -- In Iraq, only one in ten troops is a woman, and she often serves in a unit with few other women or none at all. This isolation, along with the military's deep-seated hostility toward women, causes problems that many female soldiers find as hard to cope with as war itself: degradation, sexual persecution by their comrades, and loneliness, instead of the camaraderie that every soldier depends on for comfort and survival. As one female soldier said, "I ended up waging my own war against an enemy dressed in the same uniform as mine." And then to the less serious, like (from another author)  "Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army "

Professor Browder's new book is a familiar theme to her, a previous book being: "Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America"" -- from a promotional blurb  -- "With her entertaining and provocative analysis, Browder demonstrates that armed women both challenge and reinforce the easy equation that links guns, manhood, and American identity."  

This is political correctness on steroids. Or testosterone.

gretal5570
gretal5570

... and I'm so thankful that that i served and got out of the military when I did because my Marine Corps no longer honors Esprit de Corps anymore. We're more worried about "Esprit de Equity". It's no longer about mission accomplishment being priority #1; now it's more about homosexuals being pampered and elevated to "1st class" rather than "2nd class". Please, if you're gay, you don't deserve special treatment anymore than someone who isn't gay. Troop morale is rapidly declining and Chesty is rolling over in his grave. You know something, while we're busy bickering  on and on about "equality", somewhere else on the other side of the globe, military forces are shaking their heads in disbelief. Our US Armed Forces have become a total mockery. And this WILL carry over to the battle field and unfortunately, the Marine Corps is finally going to taste defeat due to being "politically correct" all of the sudden. I'm not against females serving in the military but when you have grown men handing their testicles over to a female and saying, "we'll follow you wherever you go", that's just pathetic. And now the lines of gender will be become so blurred that that next we'll have non-biological males (women) and non-biological women (men) serving next. Might as well well just let whoever ever wants to serve in my beloved Corps serve now, cause who cares? The standards of what the Ol' Corps used to be and today's "Corps" just isn't even remotely close to being the same... oh and there definitely needs to be a segregating of male units and female units, too. And don't forget that female draft. Because ladies and gentlemen, this truth remains: "Whatever you permit, you promote as well." 

It's a sad time to be serving in our Armed Forces. And things will only go downhill from here on out... 

gretal5570
gretal5570

Since we're lowering our military standards, AGAIN (DADT) and we're all about "equality" then there needs to be a female draft installed as well. Otherwise, it's just another double-standard.

justiceday
justiceday

All that needs to be said about women in combat is that our own troops are raping and sexually assaulting women in the military.  The DOD has said that one in three women is sexually assaulted in the military and that they are estimating 50 assaults a day, BY OUR OWN TROOPS!

They make this announcement then say now lets send women into combat.  Dempsey actually said that women are probably getting assaulted because they aren't in combat.  REALLY!!!!

This was a PR move by the DOD to take the focus off of sexual assault.  And shame on all women and men who serve and are turning a blind eye to the problem.  With numbers that big how can they all not know.  When you signed up to serve and protect that meant people not your own careers!

There's a great site full of evidence  "the us marines rape com"

weissen65
weissen65

You are all idiots.  There is a huge difference between serving in a combat zone and being in an assault unit.  Just because you take and return fire in an ambush doesn't make you an infantry soldier, marine recon, sf, or seal.  While in leadership schools I served with my women counterparts.  They are not held to the same standard at a male soldier.  There pt tests are scored differently, they are not asked to hump the 60 and even if they do take it it's not for very long.  Long term having people that can't carry there own weight will wear on a uniits cohesion and in the end it's very bad for morale.  If they are going to serve in combat arms they should be held to the same standards and requirement as the male soldier.  If they perform at the same level (no grading on a curve, no waiver) as a male then they can serve in those units; if not then they remain a remf.  You know this isn't about wanting to serve in combat. This is about non combat arms personell thinking they don't get promoted fast enough.  It's about money and power nothing more. 

Cbty23
Cbty23

Women aren't built the same as men are.  The overlap between the sexes when it comes to some physical activities is about 5%.  These are facts.  Women would come into combat units as the weakest link.  If you think otherwise then you have problems. Women will make it into combat units if we lower our standards across the board. Wow, what a wonderful contribution to our military;  lowering the standards and dropping morale so that we can be forced into pretending that there are absolutely no differences between the sexes. 

If you think there is no logical reason for keeping women out of all male ground combat units then you are very delusional.  There are some places in life where men and women shouldn't be together.  Places like locker rooms and showers are two that come to mind.  Combat zones are another, because we can't avoid intimate circumstances.  I'm a bigot because I want to avoid this? 

Why can't women get their own units?  It's because they could never handle it.  So while the armed forces rely on men for combat and will always need men for combat, we have to play this charade of pretending that women are needed for combat as well to make you happy.  It's a bunch of garbage. 

weissen65
weissen65

Could you please give me an example of someone in combat that's not given credit for being in combat and define what you mean by credit and combat.  Educate me.  Thanks.

jaybo1
jaybo1

@gretal5570  Yeah, I agree on the going downhill and the rest of it too. I think you nailed it. I also think that we are finally going to taste defeat, because the men and the women and the gays are going to be at war with each other, instead of concentrating fully on what is supposed to be the main objective,. defeating the enemy. The men are probably going to lean toward pampering the females and I read the part about the first sargeant (male) telling the other sargeant (female) "We'll follow you anywhere you want to go."That was pathetic. The way I look at it the men are doing their duty, but the women are just putting themselves in harms way and making it harder on the men who will probably h ave a natural tendency to want to take care of them, thus slowint down progress. Also, when you have gays in the military there will always be a problem too. If the female draft thing happens, that will take it's toll on society also. Can you imagine a 5ft. 2in....120 lb. female going into boot camp fresh out of high school

jaybo1
jaybo1

@weissen65 Don't let Wangeshi rattle you. He or she doesn't know what their talking about. Women can'lt be held to the same standard as men. Their not built for it. In training, they are allowed longer time to complete their exercises and that's going to show up on the battlefield. I weigh close to 230 lbs. Do you think a woman could carry me to safety if I was wounded. I doubt it. Could they carry an 80 lb backpack all day long, I doubt it. But hey,let them try it. They need to pay their dues somehow. When they start bringing women back over here to be buried, It won't be funny then. Smell the roses.

Wangeshi23
Wangeshi23

@weissen65Sorry weissen: but you are the idiot and sound like a whiny baby who's toy is being taken away. Men and women ARE going to be held to the same standard: "The groundbreaking policy will set in motion a sweeping review of physical standards and result in job-specific tests that will be the same for both men and women. The military’s current rules often do not clearly define job-specific standards for strength and fitness." - (See full article here: http://www.navytimes.com/news/2013/01/ap-panetta-says-women-in-combat-a-strength-012413)

madeline136
madeline136

@jaybo1"When they start bringing women back over here to be buried, It won't be funny then."


Couldn't the same thing be said about men?  Why is it all of a sudden different for a woman? 

weissen65
weissen65

I hear ya.  I know all about it.  If the standards are raised like Wangeshi says there will only be a handful of women in combat arms.  Unless they go the other way and lower the standards for everyone.  Then we'll be in a world of sh*t. 

jaybo1
jaybo1

Besides who cares if women go into combat or not. Now that their going to be allowed into combat, what will they whine about next? Like the old saying goes "If you give someone enough rope they will hang themselves and that's what they are about to do

shannoneric94
shannoneric94

@Wangeshi23 @weissen65 

In other words Wang,

Standards will be lowered for everyone so the required quota of a 'socially responsible  diversity' is achieved.


The reason you don't see women in direct combat roles is the same reason you don't see women as bouncers at clubs.


Do you all understand the lengths these p.c. clowns will go to? The time is near to stand them up.


How about we raise an all female unit and send them into combat against the taliban.

gretal5570
gretal5570

@Wangeshi23 @weissen65 ... there also needs to be a FEMALE DRAFT, ie. SELECTIVE SERVICE. After all, equality before mission accomplishment, eh? Smh...

weissen65
weissen65

If it does change that's cool but I'll believe it when I see it. If women are held to the same standard I don't have a problem with them in combat arms mos and if it weeds out the week men I'm good with that to. Weeks without a shower no hot meals I think everyone should get to experience it. Personally I love it and there will be some women that do to. 

StephA
StephA

@madeline136 @jaybo1 Because it is different when that's happening with women. Gosh it just is. In some areas men were created to be superior to women. Period. Women serving in infantry is just sad. It really is. And this is not about women not being capable. But, just cuz you are able to do something doesn't mean you should. But, this is just another backlash from the women's lib movement. That was really when someone decided that women should be men. And women bought into it. And it all but destroyed the American family system. And now men want to be women and the homosexual movement is out of control. Gender neutrification is going to be the end of the world as we know it. It will get back on track. but, unlikely not in our lifetime. I hope it happens in my lifetime though because what I'm seeing now is so disturbing.

Wangeshi23
Wangeshi23

@jaybo1 grad school + working full time = not much free time, I'll check back in tomorrow

jaybo1
jaybo1

Hey what happened to wangeshi anyway?

jaybo1
jaybo1

And if they make it mandatory for women to go into combat I can't even imagine what it's going to be like then. Yeah, I think this is where women will bite the dirt. If  you play you have to pay and even if some of them do make it just imagine what they will look like when they come out. Some of them will probably have grandmother's humps on their back and be broken down. Can you imagine the makeup it will take to cover up the rigors of war. Their making their bed and they will have to lie in it.

jaybo1
jaybo1

Yeah I agree, but I don't think they will lower the standards. I think that the women will have to cut it or cut out. They can't afford to lower the standards, because only the strond survive and we can't have mamby pambies  running around over there on the battlefield. No, I just don't see anyway for this too work, but the women won't stop whining until they've tried it so we'll see what happens.

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