So When Are Women Joining the NFL?

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ISAF photo

A member of a U.S. military female engagement team in Afghanistan.

Should the National Football League allow women on the playing field? After all, they can kick and carry a ball, and professional football is one industry in which women are sorely under-represented, to say the least.

It’s not that likely to happen, is it?

The reality is Americans would be horrified to see a 220-pound strong safety drive over a female wide receiver running toward the goal line. There’s simply too great a disparity in body mass and strength between NFL players and women, and the physical demands are too great.

Amazingly, what is common sense on the football field has now been completely abandoned on the battlefield.

With the Pentagon’s recent announcement that combat positions will be open to women, we see the latest misguided effort to achieve “equality” where it cannot be achieved—and it may cost military women in the long run.

Women have long served in support of combat missions, frequently near the front lines. As a woman and a 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps, I know first-hand how difficult combat field operations are.

I carried in excess of 100 pounds of gear over difficult terrain for 10-15 mile marches throughout my 20-year career. This was done only with an M-16 rifle or pistol, not with the additional ammunition or heavier weapons our ground units carry. The fatigue was extreme and it was difficult to imagine how an infantryman overcame the difficulty of field movement for weeks or months at a time.

Under current policy, women in the Marine Corps are held to a less-rigorous physical standard due to the obvious physical differences. It’s a physiological fact that women have less upper body strength compared to men—yet the physical demands of combat won’t change.

Currently, women have higher rates of discharge for medical disability that prevents them from finishing their enlistment, or re-enlistment. Stress and muscular deterioration in women comes on faster and harder due to the heavy gear and physical duress in the field environment.

Muscle atrophy, hip displacement, and arthritis in knees and joints are common ailments. Spinal compression occurs from long periods of heavy combat loads.

This is the hard reality of how extended field time and intense physical standards take their toll. Women’s bodies simply aren’t designed for the fatigue of field operations with heavy field gear and weapons on less muscular body frames. (For an example, read this eye-opening article by Captain Katie Petronio, who details the long-term physical damage she endured supporting Marine Corps infantry as a combat engineer).

Sure, a small number of women will meet the requirements and complete training. How will combat units adjust for these statistical outliers? What is reasonable accommodation when it comes to showering or relieving oneself?

Even our civilian society allows for non-compliance when an accommodation requires unreasonable demands upon the employer. (The elephant in the room in the question of sexual abuse, which is already a seriously and heavily-documented problem in the services; it’s hard to imagine how this new policy won’t exacerbate that problem.)

The bitter irony is that the long-term effect of this policy, which is intended to open up avenues for higher promotion to women, could result in fewer military opportunities for women.

If this is about promotional opportunity (and there are female generals in fields outside of combat arms, by the way), then each field should be evaluated to ensure promotional opportunity is balanced fairly for women. This is a more practical adjustment than to simply remove restrictions. Women are often promoted faster than men in the fields they are assigned.

Are we setting a woman up for failure by placing her into a field that will likely cause her body to deteriorate to a point where further service is impossible? Even if a female can get through Infantry Officers’ Course, which has a single physical standard for both men and women — and a 25% male drop-out rate — how long can her body meet the demands of the extreme training?

The odds are remote that any woman in a combat position will make it 20 years to see the opportunity to retire, let alone be considered for the rank of general officer.

Many of the advocates of this policy had support roles that never required them to sleep in mud, bathe without privacy and relieve themselves in the open.

It’s alarming that women from the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, former officers who flew planes, or a few females who supported infantry for a few months as Female Engagement Teams in Iraq, have adopted a shallow “You go, girl!” mindset. These advocates, to say nothing of the media cheerleaders and others who have never served and are now celebrating this policy; have never met the rigorous requirements of the infantry themselves.

There is zero evidence this new policy will enhance combat readiness. The attitude that all military opportunities must be equal — held by those who have misconceptions about the realities of long combat operations — demonstrates how few people understand what the mission of our infantry truly requires.

Gunnery Sergeant Jessie Jane Duff, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.), is a member of the Concerned Veterans for America’s organizing committee.