The Combat Exclusion Policy: Under Attack

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Army Photo / Master Sgt. Kap Kim

Army Sgt. Maria Rodriguez (left) and Spc. Mellanie Harber talk to Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, in Ghanzi province in April.

The women in combat issue has reared its head again with the recent lawsuit filed on behalf of four female military personnel by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).

The suit claims that because of the direct ground combat exclusion policy (which includes infantry, armor [tanks], and close-in artillery), which has been in effect since 1994, women are denied access to “a number of critical assignments, schools, and positions” which in effect are a ‘brass ceiling’ that limits promotion opportunities.

Thus, qualified women tend to leave the service in greater numbers, causing retention and morale problems. The current policy also denies women certain combat awards, which are valuable for promotion, as well as combat pay and other combat benefits after service by the Veteran’s Administration.

Since 2001, women have been in combat de facto, serving as members of Female Engagement Teams, Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians, and in convoys as drivers and members of combat support and combat service support units.

They have put their lives on the line without the requisite combat training accorded their male counterparts. Since 2001, more than 144 women have been killed and more than 860 have been wounded, according to Pentagon statistics.

The lack of combat training reduces military effectiveness, not because they are female, but because they have to learn the job on the job. Even so, women have adapted and distinguished themselves, turning naysayers into believers.

SWAN notes that “this lawsuit represents a historic moment in the fight for service women’s equality and for recognition of their contributions to the Armed Forces. Women have been an integral part of our military’s success over the past decade – women make up over 14% of the force and over 280,000 U.S. women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan…The Combat Exclusion Policy does not reflect the realities of modern warfare… [and] does not reflect the capabilities and skills of our service women. This has dire consequences both for the military at large and for individual service women.”

Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, appears receptive to personnel changes, and earlier this year opened more than 14,000 jobs to female officers and non-commissioned officers in combat units below the brigade level. The new jobs within combat battalions are in personnel, intelligence, logistics, signal corps, medical and chaplaincy.

The Army is also opening jobs that were once entirely closed to women, such as mechanics for tanks and artillery and rocket launcher crew members. It was not clear if women could actually serve aboard tanks. However, there are still more than 250,000 jobs that remain closed to women. The Pentagon ordered the services to issue a progress report on the jobs it opened and to look into other areas that could possibly be opened to women, including the infantry. Reports are due at the end of November, and any further policy changes or recommendations would be sent to Congress by Secretary Panetta.

Some other areas that have seen changes are:

— In June, the Navy merged the Riverine Forces and Maritime Expeditionary Security Forces (MESF) into the Coastal Riverine Force (CORIVFOR). Since MESF was an integrated force, the merger allowed women to become eligible for Riverine training.

Subsequently, the first Riverine Combat Skills Course (RCS) class to include women graduated during a ceremony at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Oct. 26. Four women started the five-week course along with 56 men on Sept. 23 and were trained and evaluated on combat skills needed to perform their duties as a Riverine Sailor.

— Since September, women in every class of the Marine Corps Basic School (TBS) have been given the opportunity to volunteer for the Infantry Officer (IO) Course. This is a pilot program to help guide decision-makers on whether or not the infantry should be open to women. About 125 female officers enter TBS each year, however, to date, only two of about 80 eligible female Marines have attended the course and both have attrited.

No women have volunteered for the next IO Course, which begins in January. The Marine Corps would like about 90 more women to go through the course before making any decisions, but it appears it may take longer than anticipated. The Marines have yet to implement the option for female enlisted Marine volunteers to train at the Infantry Training Battalion.

As expected, both sides of the combat exclusion policies have weighed in on the matter. The Marine Corps is at least trying to quantify the physical and other requirements it takes to be an effective infantry officer or enlisted Marine. The Marine Corps is also surveying active duty Marines and reservists about their experience with female Marines and the potential challenges of opening more opportunities to women. Let’s just hope they also survey female Marines in the process. Marine Corps Commandant General James F. Amos hopes this will settle the issue in a way that addresses everyone’s concerns.

The four women plaintiffs represent officers from the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Army, and an NCO from the Army. All four of them served in either Iraq or Afghanistan in combat-related missions, and two received the Purple Heart from combat-related injuries. The lawsuit hopes to ensure that personnel assigned to any military job would be a result of capability, not gender.

As noted above with Marine Infantry Training, there are few volunteers, and so far no graduates of IO school. The plaintiffs, or at least SWAN, thinks that until women are offered the ability to serve in every military billet, the issue of sexual assault and harassment will continue. The inference is that if women are treated as second citizens by policy and procedure, they will be treated as such by their superiors, peers, and subordinates as well. My thoughts on that will be addressed at a later time. Suffice it to say, we’ll see.