Women in Combat: Silver Stars, Combat Action Badges and Casualties

First Lt. Anja Nelson, a team leader with a female engagement team assigned to the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, engages with women and children during a census in southern Kandahar province, Afghanistan. (Photo by Spc. Crystal Davis)

In the coming weeks, the service chiefs will likely cite reams of data to support their positions on whether to lift restrictions on women serving in combat jobs.

A couple of the statistics will be hard to miss: More than 9,000 female troops have earned Combat Action Badges during modern combat operations, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds more have earned valor awards, including the Silver Star, the Army's third-highest valor award.

Advocates of lifting the restrictions argue that existing data show women are already serving in combat and lifting the restrictions would only be recognizing that reality to allow them to prove they can meet the standards for currently closed billets and receive the training they need.

Opponents argue that imposing major social and cultural changes on the military would be fraught with risk in an era of increasing global threats and cite statistics showing that women suffer injuries at twice the rate of men in training.

At his Aug. 20 Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter restated the policy that has been in effect since then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in January 2013 that all military occupational specialties would be open to women unless the services argued for an exception.

"Approximately 110,000 ground combat positions have been opened to women since then, and the Department's policy is that all ground combat positions will be open to women, unless rigorous analysis of factual data shows that the positions must remain closed," Carter said. Some 200,000 combat positions remain closed to female troops.

"On October 1st, the services will provide a report to the Chairman requesting any exception to this policy, and I'll review the services recommendation and make a final determination on that issue by the end of this year."

Carter spoke after placing a congratulatory phone call to the first women to pass the demanding 62-day Army Ranger School – Army Capt. Kristen Griest and Army 1st Lt. Shaye Haver.

"I take special satisfaction in the strides like this," Carter said of the two women Ranger School graduates. He stressed that the service chiefs will now have to make the case for a "justification for any -- if there are any -- exceptions" to the general rule to open billets.

More than 214,000 women now serve in the military, account for about 14.5 percent of the force. The Marine Corps has the lowest percentage – slightly less than 7 percent. More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"As of April 2015, 161 women have lost their lives and 1,015 had been wounded in action as part of Global War on Terror (GWOT) operations" since the 9/11 terror attacks, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Army alone reported 89 women killed in the line of duty in Iraq and 36 in Afghanistan.

"In addition, in modern combat operations, over 9,000 women have received Army Combat Action Badges for ‘actively engaging or being engaged by the enemy,'" the CRS said.

Through 2012, the Army reported that 437 women earned awards for valor to include two Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, 31 Air Medals, and 16 Bronze Stars.

In releasing the report, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said "It should be clear to all that women are a major force in operations today. We're not starting from the ground up in the assessment period" on whether women should serve in combat. "Women are integral in all theaters of combat as we speak."

In some instances, the women earning awards for valor led men in firefights. Then-Army Capt. Kellie McCoy, a West Point graduate, earned the Bronze Star with "V" device for her actions on Sept. 18, 2003, for leading 11 male paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division in breaking up an enemy ambush between Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province.

Her citation said that "Capt. McCoy willingly and repeatedly took action to gather up her soldiers under enemy fire and direct fire at the enemy. Her actions inspired her men to accomplish the mission and saved the lives of her fellow soldiers."

In other instances, women have performed valiantly in combat under commanders well aware of the restrictions who had no recourse under fire.

In April 2007 in Afghanistan's Paktika province, then-Pfc. Monica Brown, an 18-year-old Army medic from Lake Jackson, Texas, grabbed her kit and raced through enemy fire to save soldiers trapped in a burning Humvee. She later received the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest award for valor, in a ceremony presided over by then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

"We weren't supposed to take her out" on missions "but we had to because there was no other medic," Lt. Martin Robbins, a platoon leader with Charlie Troop, 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, later told the Washington Post

"By regulations you're not supposed to," Robbins said, but Brown "was one of the guys, mixing it up, clearing rooms, doing everything that anybody else was doing."

Those who oppose lifting the 1994 restrictions on women in the infantry, armor, artillery and Special Operations cited statistics showing alarmingly higher injury rates for women, and artillery participating in the tests and assessments currently being conducted by the services.

The Army's Institute of Public Health reported that in basic combat training, approximate average injury rates for women were 114 percent higher than those for men.

In training for engineers and military police, they were 108 percent higher, according to documents obtained by the Center for Military Readiness headed by Elaine Donnelly, a frequent critic of social and cultural changes in the military.

Critics also cite the recent remarks at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado of retired Navy Adm. Eric Olson, head of the Special Operations Command from 2007-11 and the former top SEAL.

"I think that we are only having part of the discussion on women in combat," Olson said. "I think that we need to ask ourselves as a society if we are willing to put women in front-line combat units to take the first bullet on target."

Olson continued: "Are we willing to cause every 18-year-old girl to sign up for selective service? Are we willing to cause women to serve in infantry units against their will as we do men?"

The Congressional Research Service summed up the arguments:

"Those in favor of keeping restrictions cite physiological differences between men and women that could potentially affect military readiness and unit effectiveness. Some also argue that social and cultural barriers exist to the successful integration of women into combat occupations and all-male units."

"Those who advocate for opening all military occupations to women emphasize equal rights and arguing it is more difficult for service members to advance to top-ranking positions in the armed services without combat experience. In their view, modern weapons have equalized the potential for women in combat since wars are less likely to be fought on a hand-to-hand basis."

When the service chiefs send their findings to Carter late next month, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford will be the first to report and the most closely watched. The Marines are considered by some the most tradition-bound and resistant to change of the services.

According to Marine officials, Dunford, now the Marine Commandant, has committed to sending the Marines' report to Carter before he is succeeded on Sept. 24 by Marine Gen. Robert Neller. Dunford will take over in October as the new Joint Chiefs Chairman from retiring Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.

As JCS Chairman, Dempsey stood next to then-Defense Secretary Panetta when Panetta announced in January 2013 that the restrictions were being lifted unless the services asked for exceptions.

At the Pentagon news conference, Dempsey cited an anecdote from his own experience in taking over command of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003 as the insurgency gathered strength.

On a trip outside his headquarters, Dempsey introduced himself to the crew of his Humvee. "I slapped the turret gunner on the leg and I said, 'Who are you?' And she leaned down and said, I'm Amanda.' And I said, 'Ah, OK,'" Dempsey said.

"So, female turret-gunner protecting division commander. It's from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it," Dempsey said.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com

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