January 25, 2013

Women in combat: 'Everyone is entitled to a chance'

Women will face daunting physical requirements for combat troops, but they have the right to try.

By LOLITA C. BALDOR The Associated Press

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Female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train for duty in Afghanistan on a firing range in Fort Campbell, Ky., in September.

The Associated Press

In 2003, when he went to Baghdad as commander of the 1st Armored Division, Dempsey recalled that he jumped into a Humvee on his first foray out of the forward operating base.

"I slapped the turret gunner on the leg and I said, 'Who are you?' And she leaned down and said, 'I'm Amanda."'

"And it's from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it."

But Dempsey cautioned that no one knows where future conflicts will take place. That's why the military needs time, he said, to review and possibly revise standards for combat jobs. The historic change overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to thousands of front-line artillery, infantry, armor, special operations and pararescue jobs.

The Navy also announced that it is opening jobs for female sailors on smaller attack submarines -- ships that had traditionally been closed to women largely due to privacy concerns in extremely close quarters.

There long has been opposition to putting women in combat, based on questions of whether they have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs, or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion.

But the Pentagon's announcement was largely hailed by lawmakers and military groups. There were only a few offering dissenting views.

Spc. Jean Sardonas, who works as a lab technician at a hospital at Fort Bliss in Texas, said she considered joining an Army team that faces combat situations. But since she's had children, she said her perspective had changed.

"If you see the enemy, well, that's the enemy, but now if you see a kid with a gun you're going to think twice" about shooting him, she said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who will be the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he is concerned about the possible impact of completely ending the ban, adding that he suspects legislation may be needed to stop changes that would be detrimental.

The change comes as Panetta wraps up his tenure as defense secretary. The order expands the department's action of nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army.

The necessities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached -- but not formally assigned -- to battalions. So while a woman couldn't be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly a helicopter supporting the unit, or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured.

Dempsey suggested that eliminating the ban on women in some combat roles could help with the ongoing sexual assault and harassment problems in the military.

"When you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else,

"I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment." said Dempsey.


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