Why Experience Will Determine Effects of Women Entering Combat Roles

Female soldiers

If the Pentagon opens combat specialties to women next year, the services will not fully understand what the change will mean to the women and men who will form the gender-integrated fighting units until they experience time in the field together, female troops said Wednesday.

Much of what the services and troops will have to know will only be learned over time and by experience, and not by studies done in advance of actually moving women into combat specialties, the women said.

"You can't do studies in a vacuum. There's no test environment you can come up with that is the same as what we're asking our men and our women to be in," said Command Chief Warrant Officer Phyllis Wilson, the Army Reserve's top warrant officer, during a break Wednesday in a day-long conference sponsored by the Army Women's Foundation at Arlington National Cemetery.

Ret. Navy Capt. Lori Manning, former deputy to the Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for readiness, said the services have spent the last two decades increasingly integrating women into previously all-male fields.

"If the Army does integrate the infantry and Special Operations Command integrates the small units they have to look not just to themselves ... but also what spouses think of their husbands or wives being out there with just a few others," Manning said.

Wilson and Manning were among a dozen active-duty and retired service women and others taking part in panel discussions held at the cemetery's conference center about a range of issues for females serving in the military. Defense Department officials on Tuesday told the House Armed Services Committee that they expect to have all military jobs -- including those in the combat arms -- open to women sometime next year.

In January 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a directive that all services open combat-arms roles to women that so far have been reserved for men. The services have until 2016 to make their recommendations on how to make this happen.

The services have done a host of studies such as the plan to allow a select group of female soldiers to go through Ranger School this year. In January, the first five women completed the Army's Ranger Training Assessment Course at Fort Benning, Ga. 

Even before Panetta's directive, the Marine Corps allowed in 2012 the first two female lieutenants attempt the Marine Infantry Officer Course

The U.S. military has gradually integrated women into additional roles and responsibilities across the services such as flying jets and helicopters or serving on submarines. Thus far, Manning said the experience has shown that women have not been a distraction to male troops -- a concern often voiced by critics of integrating combat units -- when the shooting starts, Manning said.

"Sometimes the female is looking over to make sure the male is okay, and rescuing him," Manning said. 

That's where the female's instinct might kick in, according to Wilson. "Because we're maternalistic, we're caretakers, as well," she said.

Officials can talk about social implications and possible difficulties arising from having women and men together in combat situations, including in remote areas, but it will be real-world situations that provide the lessons learned, said Wilson.

These include interpersonal relationships -- how the presence of women may change the dynamics of a small unit -- hygiene, whether to chemical provide birth control to prevent pregnancy, and whether in a firefight men will be overly focused on protecting their female buddies.

"One of the things we want to be very clear on is how do we preclude women from having a regular cycle," said Wilson. "And do we then chemically preclude that ... if they are in that [combat] environment? And what are the long-term implications for a woman if she should choose later to have a child?"

Then there would be situations with a woman soldier pulling duty in a hideaway site for days at a time with perhaps two men. How they deal with going to the bathroom and squirreling away waste until they can safely leave the site is something they'll have to figure out.

"You have two females and five, six or seven males -- the group dynamics can become horribly skewed," she said. "All it takes is one to like another and then there's a falling out. The unit is supposed to be a cohesive team, but that can fall apart."

"I think we're ready to say physically and professionally our females are there," ready to serve in infantry units and even Special Operations units, she said. "But we aren't always looking at the social ramifications when we put women in these environments. And not only women, but the men."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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