Day after day, Guay has faced situations that would test the steel of any soldier. And female soldiers like her — as well as Army officers who support them — are seizing opportunities amid Iraq’s indiscriminate violence to push back the barriers against women in combat. As American women in uniform patrol bomb-ridden highways, stand duty at checkpoints shouldering M-16s and raid houses in insurgent-contested towns, many have come to believe this 360-degree war has rendered obsolete a decade-old Pentagon policy barring them from serving with ground combat battalions.
“The Army has to understand the regulation that says women can’t be placed in direct fire situations is archaic and not attainable,” said Lt. Col. Cheri Provancha, commander of a Stryker Brigade support battalion in Mosul, who decided to bend Army rules and allow Guay to serve as a medic for an infantry company of the 82nd Airborne. Under a 1994 policy, women are excluded from units at the level of battalion and below that engage in direct ground combat.
“This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it,” Provancha, a 21-year Army veteran from San Diego, said from her base in what soldiers call Mosul’s “mortar alley.” “We are embedded with the enemy.”
Dozens of soldiers interviewed across Iraq — male and female, from lower enlisted ranks to senior officers — voiced frustration over restrictions on women mandated in Washington that they say make no sense in the war they are fighting. All said the policy should be changed to allow, at a minimum, mixed-sex support units to be assigned to combat battalions. Many favored a far more radical step: letting qualified women join the infantry.
Necessity is often the mother of invention. Women are generally prohibited from serving in positions that place them in danger. In Iraq though the distinction is growing very thin:
Although the Army is barred from assigning women to ground combat battalions, in Iraq it skirts the ban with a twist in terminology. Instead of being “assigned,” women are “attached in direct support of” the battalions, according to Army officers familiar with the policy. As a result, the Army avoids having to seek Pentagon and congressional approval to change the policy, officers said.
“What has changed? Nothing,” said Lt. Col. Bob Roth of the 3rd Infantry Division. “You just want someone to feel better by saying we don’t allow women in dangerous situations.”
My prediction is that we will continue to see more women in the military and that more of them will be tapped to fill combat positions. Why? Because we need a lot more soldiers. We especially need more front line soldiers.
Our current situation in Iraq has become untenable and our exit strategy is a joke. We have National Guard members and reservists already on their third tour of duty in Iraq. Armed forces recruiting are seriously lagging. And prior to last year’s election Congress went on record saying they would not reinstate the draft.
So where will we find the armed forces that we need to accomplish the missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? Short of doing something pragmatic like declaring victory and leaving we will choose the easiest course. With the draft allegedly out and our forces overextended we will become pragmatic. I expect that these archaic and artificial distinctions between what women may do in the military will gradually disappear. At some point it will becoming so threadbare that there will be no real distinction. Perhaps Congress will simply change the law. Indeed we may see female only combat battalions.
Such a change will be a mixed blessing. Our forces will become fully sexually integrated at all levels. As they do now, women will serve with pride and distinction. But they will also demonstrate that they have the right stuff to handle combat level stress. We will see women as a critical part of our force structure and kick ourselves for having kept them from serving in the front lines for so long.
But I cannot say that I welcome it. My motives are entirely selfish. I have a 15-year-old daughter who may soon garner the attention of military recruiters. I doubt the military would be a career that she would choose, particularly since she is gay friendly and it is not. But I am far more concerned about the less likely event of a draft. I don’t want to see her placed in the armed forces against her will and to fight in a conflict that she already feels in morally wrong.
Yet I can feel it. Push is coming to shove. Something will have to give, and give soon. Hello G.I. Jane!