By Chris Hoenig
Women make up more than 10 percent of active U.S. military personnel. More than a quarter million women have been sent overseas in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. About 150 of those women have died. Still, none of those women are recognized as front-line soldiers in combat.
Months after the Department of Defense lifted the ban on women in combat, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has signed off on plans to begin to open combat roles to women, with some training positions in the elite Special Operations Forces available to women by 2015. Under the guidelines, new gender-neutral standards will be established for many combat-ready positions, with inclusion to begin soon thereafter.
While the Air Force and Navy both have more than 85 percent of their positions open to everyone, the Army still lags behind, responsible for most of the nearly 240,000 jobs currently closed to women. A rolling calendar would have new standards in place for Army combat engineers, field-artillery units, and infantry and armor jobs in 2015. By the middle of that year, positions in the training programs to become an Army Ranger would be available to women. The Navy has set October 2015 as a goal to have women enter boot camp on a fast track toward becoming a Navy SEAL, with actual SEAL training set to begin in 2016. Both the Rangers and SEALs are part of the Special Forces.
Some jobs will open sooner. The Navy’s Riverine forces could begin including women among their ranks within months, working as part of a river- and coastal-defense unit that does see close combat. Inclusion in other Naval units will be delayed, as studies look at the cost of redesigns and construction aboard submarines, frigates and other smaller vessels that don’t have adequate facilities and privacy to accommodate women.
History of Women in the Military
Women have served in civilian roles in the U.S. military since the birth of our nation, acting as nurses during the Revolutionary War. Before formally enlisting as nurses and support staff during World War I, some women went as far as to disguise themselves as men in order to serve.
During World War II, women served as WASPs, a civilian organization that flew military aircraft for the Army Air Forces. Decades later, they were granted veteran status. In 1976, U.S. military academies began admitting women, and 22 years later, the first female fighter pilots flew combat missions off aircraft carriers during Operation Desert Fox in Iraq.
Two women were taken captive during the first Persian Gulf War, and two more were famously rescued after being held as POWs in Iraq in 2003: Shoshana Johnson—the first Black or Hispanic female POW—and Jessica Lynch were held in captivity for 22 days.
Other Battles Facing Women
The new timeline for women to formally enter combat comes just weeks after a U.S. Senate committee approved a plan that would change the military-justice system with the goal of slowing an epidemic of sexual assaults in the military.
The bill, approved in a 17-9 vote by the Senate Armed Services Committee, would trigger an automatic review any time a commander declines to prosecute a sexual-assault case against the advice of a military lawyer. The plan stops short of turning rape and assault claims over to a civilian prosecutor, as New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had proposed.