COMMENTARY: Women serving in combat posts: U.S. catches up

The Dec. 3 Department of Defense announcement that the U.S. military will open the final 10 percent of its positions — mostly combat-oriented — to women is both evolutionary and revolutionary. While the change has been a long time coming, it was hastened by several factors.

American women served with distinction in a few non-combat posts during conflicts prior to 1940. In World War II, the jobs for women in the military expanded. If not in combat posts, then, many were at least exposed to dangerous circumstances, and dozens of women were captured and held as POWs.

Women were also held as POWs briefly during the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq War. When considering the commitment demonstrated by women in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, there should have been no doubt of their front-line service during conflicts. A total of 200,000 women took part in one or both of the latter wars, of which 800 were injured and 130 killed.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Women have taken advantage of laws and policies which have expanded opportunities for service in the military. Although the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed in 1948, it took until 1976 for the military service academies to grant admission to females.

In 1993, Congress permitted women to serve on combat ships. It took just seven years for a woman to command a U.S. Navy warship and another eleven for women to serve aboard Navy submarines, once the exclusive bastion of men. In the air, it took just six years after women pilots were allowed to fly combat missions for a female to command a fighter squadron.

Clearly, the U.S. is catching up to other nations whose policies have permitted women to serve in combat posts for decades. The Soviet, German, and British armies, among others, allowed women to work in combat posts during World War II. During peacetime, countries such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Israel, and New Zealand have approved service by women in combat posts. Another nation which permits such military service by women, Canada, found no negative effects from that policy.

Recently, India has revised its policy to permit women in combat posts; Britain is discussing such a change; and Australia’s military is set to open combat posts to women next year.

Despite having three years to implement the January 2013 order to prepare implementation of women in combat posts, the Marines have largely opposed the move, citing a number of studies.

For instance, from 2000-2012, women were evacuated from Afghanistan at a rate 22 percent higher than men. In 2014, women troops were hospitalized 40 percent more often than men, excluding pregnancy.

The Marines report that 11 percent more women than men are hurt in training and that all-male units surpassed mixed-gender units in selected training exercises. While the Marines have a right to protest within the chain of command, they may have to answer a three-year-old pending suit against the military for gender discrimination pertaining to the combat controversy.

It doesn’t take a soothsayer to see that the move toward greater equality in American society has impacted and will continue to impact the military. When three women recently passed the rigorous Army Ranger training, it was a watershed moment for gender equity in a voluntary military where women comprise 15 percent of the total serving.

While some hope that women will never have to take up arms to protect the nation, the success of those who have bodes well for our defense.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He served as DSU’s ROTC director from 1993-1999. In 2015, Dr. Hoff became the sixth person elected as an honorary member of the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati, part of the premier military hereditary organization in the United States.

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