Combat ban on women lifted: A look back, and reactions today
Through the years, women’s roles in wartime have evolved. During the American Revolution, Nancy Morgan Hart was famously depicted with a musket, defending her home and children from British soldiers in Georgia.
In World War II, members of the Women Army Corps worked in a support capacity, while in Iraq and Afghanistan women have served closer to the front.
Those roles evolved further Thursday when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order ending the Pentagon’s ban on women serving in combat. It overturns a 1994 ruling that banned women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units, and is expected to open up more than 230,000 combat positions that have been off limits to them.
Here’s a collection of images showing some of the ways women have served their country in the U.S. military, and of reactions to the lifting of the combat ban. — Associated Press
Former U.S. Army Capt. Linda L. Bray says her male superiors were incredulous upon hearing she had ably led a platoon of military police officers through a firefight during the 1989 invasion of Panama.
Instead of being lauded for her actions, the first woman in U.S. history to lead male troops in combat said higher-ranking officers accused her of embellishing accounts of what happened when her platoon bested an elite unit of the Panamanian Defense Force. After her story became public, Congress fiercely debated whether she and other women had any business being on the battlefield.
As the Pentagon’s longstanding prohibition against women serving in ground combat ended Thursday, Bray was thrilled. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful that our nation’s military is taking steps to help women break the glass ceiling,” said Bray, 53, of Clemmons, N.C. “It’s nothing new now in the military for a woman to be right beside a man in operations.” Read the full Associated Press story here.
Women held to same standard
Defense Secretary Leon said women will be held to the same standard as men, and those standards will not be deliberately lowered to allow more women to serve in combat units or jobs. “Let me be clear, I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job,” Panetta said.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he believes women will ultimately serve in the most elite special operations forces such as the Navy’s SEALs or the Army’s Delta Force. “I think that we all believe that there will be women who can meet those standards,” Dempsey said. Read the full Navy Times story here.
Panetta was determined to lift the combat ban before leaving his post, his aides say. Read a profile of Panetta and a look back at his career here.
For both men, the decision had its roots in their personal experiences seeing women serving in war zones. Read their accounts in The New York Times.
Four women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including one awarded a Purple Heart, had been suing to end the combat ban. Read their stories in the Daily Beast.
At Fort Campbell in Tennesee, Lt. Col. Juanita Chang, lead public affairs officer for the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), said: “It’s nice to know that our leadership has the confidence in our abilities and will now judge us on our ability rather than our gender.”
Read more reaction from military women in Clarksville in the Leaf-Chronicle.
Applause — and reservations
Veterans such as U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth — the first woman injured in combat to be elected to national office when the Democrat ousted former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh in November — applauded the move as a broadening of opportunities for women and said it will improve the nation’s armed forces.
But several older veterans said most women are not physically strong enough to participate directly in combat. Read the full Chicago Tribune story here.
Southwest Floridians also had concerns. A combat infantryman who served in Korea and Germany said: “I don’t think I’d want a woman in the foxhole with me.”
Read more in the News-Press.
Oklahoma senator concerned
Oklahoma City • U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe is voicing concern about the Pentagon’s decision to end its ban on women in combat. In a statement, Inhofe said he was on the House Committee that first made the changes in 1994 and that he’s “concerned about the potential impacts of completely ending this policy.”
Inhofe is currently the top ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says the committee will provide oversight of the transition and will stop any changes “detrimental to our fighting forces.”
Welcoming new opportunities
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Heidi Olson was among the women soldiers cheering the change.
Spc. Olson, 24, has served as a “female engagement” soldier reaching out to Afghan women, which placed her on infantry patrols through treacherous territory. Her deployment ended last May when she suffered shrapnel wounds to her face and left side in a bomb blast.
She would welcome the chance to go to war as a formal member of an infantry unit. “It’s official,” Olson declared. “We don’t have to do the back door way to go out to combat.” Read the full story in The Seattle Times.
More on the history of women in combat
Read a story in The New York Times, from this time last year, that traces American women’s service in the military and the development of the combat ban.
In 2011, the Times reported, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, established by Congress, had concluded nearly unanimously that the parts of the combat exclusion policy that govern women’s assignments “should be eliminated immediately because, given current practices for employing women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems obsolete.”