Women Warriors Are On the Battlefield. Eliminate Outdated, Unfair Military Combat Exclusion Policy

UPDATE: In January 2013, the Department of Defense announced it was lifting the combat ban on women in the military. Despite this announcement, the Department of Defense continues to bar women from thousands of jobs, so plaintiffs updated their complaint.

Major Mary Jennings Hegar served three tours over two deployments to Afghanistan, and trained as a California Air National Guard Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) pilot after serving 5 years in the Air Force. She was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with a Valor Device for heroism while participating in an aerial mission near Kandahar Airfield on July 29, 2009. She is currently a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the military’s policy excluding women from many combat positions.

When I was little, people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I’d always answer, “I want to be an Air Force pilot.”  I never understood why they would look so surprised. To this day, that same part of me doesn’t understand why someone’s gender would have any bearing at all on what job they ended up in. I always thought that your skills, strengths, and interests would be better qualifiers. I remember watching the news when I was in high school and hearing that they were opening combat aircraft up to women for the first time. My first thought was, “Cool!  What do I need to do to get one!” followed closely by my second thought, “What changed?  Why weren’t we allowed to fly in combat before?”

Since those days, I’ve truly been living my dream. I’ve been through years of vigorous, challenging, sometimes brutal training. I excelled in the academic, flying, and physical fitness arenas. I never doubted I could do this job. SERE training (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) was the most intense physical and mental test I’ve been through to date, and successfully completing that course convinced me that I could do anything. But, despite these accomplishments, I have faced a great deal of discrimination during my career. The most unfortunate example was as a brand new co-pilot on my first tour in Afghanistan.

I was very eager and excited to finally be “hacking the mission” in Afghanistan in 2007. My first crew was amazing, and together we flew hundreds of missions saving the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. You would never have guessed that before our first flight my Aerial Gunner had to be ordered to fly with me over his objections to flying into combat with a woman. When I confronted him about it, he said that he didn’t think I could carry my weight in an evasion situation if we were to find ourselves shot down over enemy lines. He used the combat exclusion policy as substantiation for his prejudice, stating that if women were his equal then the Air Force would let them be Pararescuemen and Combat Controllers (two jobs closed to women then and now). He didn’t take into consideration the fact that I had become somewhat of an expert on the local area, learning some of the language and landmarks, or that I was the only expert marksman (in both of my weapons) on the crew. Instead of seeing my strengths and how I could contribute to an evading crew, he only saw my gender. However, I was able to prove him wrong in 2009.

On my third tour to Afghanistan, my crew and I were flying a Medevac mission to exfiltrate three Category A (“Urgent Surgical”) American soldiers from a convoy which had been ambushed and was pinned down somewhere north of Kandahar. When we landed the first time to offload our Pararescuemen (our Special Forces troops who have medical training and are responsible for going out and getting the patients to the helicopter), the aircraft took a 5.56mm round through the co-pilot windshield which fragmented and impacted my right forearm and thigh in 15 places. On takeoff, the crew discussed returning to base. All it took was my telling them that I was alright and that I thought we should go back in (it’s every Rescue pilot’s nightmare to leave a Pararescueman or survivor on the ground while you go home). There was no overzealous chivalry, no concessions given for gender…just a crew of Americans who refused to fly out of there without everyone on board.

On our second landing, unfortunately, the enemy had repositioned a belt-fed heavy machine gun and proceeded to fill our aircraft with 40 or 50 7.62mm rounds. Crippled, we lifted off and tried to get our patients to safety. However, some of the rounds we took had impacted our fuel system enough that we only made it 1.8 miles. Despite my injuries, I continued to serve my crew as their co-pilot, helping the aircraft commander get the limping aircraft on the ground. We instantly shut down and established a perimeter, receiving fire from the surrounding enemy forces for 20 minutes before being rescued on the skids of the supporting Army OH-58 helicopters. While we lifted off, I was able to ascertain the point of origin of enemy fire being directed at the Pararescuemen who were transferring our patients to our sister ship. I returned fire and suppressed the enemy enough to enable them to safely traverse the terrain between the two aircraft. At no point during this encounter was my gender ever even considered to be a factor in any decision or action taken by any member of my crew. We were warriors on a battlefield with one goal in mind: get everyone - EVERYONE - home safe.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about the differences between us all throughout my years of service, it’s this:  putting the right person in the right job has very little to do with one’s gender, race, religion, or other demographic descriptor. It has everything to do with one’s heart, character, ability, determination and dedication.

That’s the problem with the military’s combat exclusion policy. It makes it that much harder for people to see someone’s abilities, and instead reinforces stereotypes about gender. The policy creates the pervasive way of thinking in military and civilian populations that women can’t serve in combat roles, even in the face of the reality that servicewomen in all branches of the military are already fighting for their country alongside their male counterparts. They shoot, they return fire, they drag wounded comrades to safety, they engage the enemy, and they have been doing these heroic deeds since the Revolutionary War. They risk their lives for their country, and the combat exclusion policy does them a great disservice.

I’m proud to be a part of this moment in history, and believe my country will recognize the need to update an antiquated policy that only serves to limit the pool of applicants who want to rise to answer our nation’s call by serving in our military’s most demanding jobs.

Learn more about combat exclusion: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (17)
Read the Terms of Use

Niky

During my tour in Iraq there were countless rapes and assaults. I convoyed daily and operated on the 'front line'. During the day the Iraqis were my enemies and at night it was my fellow soldier. Be careful what you ask for....women have no place in combat because they will never be able to just do their jobs. I wish it was different.

combat vet

I served in a combat zone as an infantryman and was also attached to a co-ed air defense artillery unit. They were like night and day. I was shocked by the different standards to which the women were held. These lower expectations for the women did them so much more harm than good and destroyed the morale of the unit.

The PT test standards were considerably lower. This resulted in a watered down PT session every morning, which was just embarrassing. The infantry PT is an intense workout which results in a fit and tight unit.

Field duty was just an annoying routine in the co-ed unit because there was a requirement for the women to be permitted showers every three days. Consequently, these field exercises only lasted three days, involved huge tents and portable toilets. It took longer to prepare than they spent in the field and much longer to clean up afterwards. The infantry unit I was in often spent 30 days at a time in the field with maybe only one chance to strip down and wash at a water point. There were no tents and you had to dig a 6" deep hole for a toilet even on a clear flat plain.

I am sure that there are many other regulations in the military which treat men and women differently. Please eliminate all of them, but first focus on the ones which would make our military stronger.

ACLU Member

Selective service has got to go.

David Tierney

A focus on physical fitness requirements or humping a pack as a requirement for combat roles seems to be the first step in making the strawman argument that women

shouldn't be allowed to be in combat roles. It goes something like this: If she can't do the same number of pullups/pushups, then she physically can't cut the mustard

in combat.

Okay, okay, females have different bodies than males. In the Marine Corps, every woman must do the same 100 crunches to earn a perfect score. The run time required to earn a perfect score is lower than males, though they still must run 3 miles. The pullup is not yet required as it is for males. when I was in, the standards were even less stringent for women. Perhaps, statistically, women can do fewer pullups. Perhaps, statistically, women are built smaller than men. But, if that were sufficient for success in combat, then all infantry would be over 6' and able to do obstacle course marathons in full gear. There is obviously more to success in combat.

Are there women who could score perfect PFTs by men's standards? Sure, but they're rare. Because women are obviously physically different. But, does that mean they

can't cut the mustard in combat. Not at all. You'll notice from the story on this website from the woman who is the named plaintiff that she apparently DID cut the mustard: After being wounded, and crashing in her own aircraft, she laid down suppressive fire to aid in the withdrawal or rescue personnel. There wasn't much PTing she could do wounded. She could, however, stand her ground and send death downrange.

Physical fitness tests are set somewhat arbitrarily (why pullups for Marines and pushups for Army?) to determine rough fitness. These tests also encourage a general fitness. But, they are not a legitimate test of combat effectiveness. But, what about having the strength to throw a grenade far enough not to blow oneself up? Or carry a wounded comrade off the battlefield? Or pull the slide back on a service pistol? According to Bill Flax in a recent article on Forbes online (http://www.forbes.com/sites/billflax/2012/11/29/memo-to-the-aclu-dont-put-women-into-combat/), this was exactly the kind of failures women demonstrated in a study done on Marines while he was active. These sound like legitimate concerns. They even sound true. It was a study after all.

I am 5'8" and when I was on active duty I weighed 150 lbs. I am male, in case I just created doubt, but my cammies were definitely Small-Short. Could I carry one of my larger brethren off the battlefield? Maybe, but I'd have some serious difficulty. If that were the measure of combat effectiveness, then they would never have let me in. If we were genuinely concerned about this, then we should attenuate the height requirements so that all infantry was between 5'11" and 6'1" and 180 and 210 lbs. But we don't. So that cannot be an honest concern. Dan Daly, one of the most respected Marines in Marine Corps history. He was 5'6" and 132 lbs. He won two Medals of Honor. Marines look to him as a model.

As far as the other two, that is really a matter of practice and specific exercises and are not a matter of genuine physical differences. The first time you try to pull the slide back on an M9 (or a 1911), you possibly won't manage it. It takes practice -- even a little. And the current grenade has a 15m kill radius. That's approximately 45'. The distance from a baseball pitcher's mound to home plate is 60'6" (or almost 18 1/2 meters). Do you think women can't lob a 16 ounce ball of steel that far?

Just in case you DO think that, you should know that in recent years the Marine Corps implemented a Combat Fitness Test (for all Marines, male and female). It includes throwing a grenade into a marked circle 22 1/2 yards away. If you don't do it, you fail. Period. Gender is not an issue. It also includes dragging and lifting a simulated casualty, though this simulated casualty is matched relative to the height and weight of the participant.

Most issues with women in combat are social and cultural. That's not to say that there couldn't be a detrimental effect, just that the cause is not an inherent part of gender. That means aculturation, education, and good leadership (civilian and military) can mitigate any negative effects.

The women in the Marine Corps had to do the same forced marches that I did in full 782 gear and body armor carrying a full pack and a weapon. It didn't matter if you

were male, female, or other. It didn't matter if you were 7'2" tall, or 4'11". You had to walk at the same pace. You had to go the same 15-25 mile distance (LtCol

Tihtzmann: that's 24 - 40 clicks), regardless of the temperature or the humidity. Quitting was not allowed, and falling out or having an injury that put you on the

truck meant you suffered the same shame as it would to a big, male Marine.

Also, a Marine who happens to be a woman meets the same expectation for marksmanship that has been a hallmark of Marines since they sat in the crowsnests picking off

British sailors on opposing ships. At the rifle range, women didn't get larger targets or closer ones. 200, 300, and 500 yards; those were the distances you had to

successfully hit your target. This is Marine marksmanship, not male Marine marksmanship.

In boot camp, women are taught the same Marine Corps history. They are taught that they fully belong to the same illustrious band of elite warriors as the men. They

are taught that Marines are "rifleman first," no matter their job, no matter their gender. They learn the reputation of the Marine Corps around the world. They learn

that once they earn the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor they are Marine. Always. And they learn that Marines are invincible because they believe they are. And, even if this

isn't strictly true, Marines tend to act accordingly.

Can you trust the people to your left and right to close with and engage the enemy without hesitation? Can you trust them to keep going when stuff gets gritty? Can you trust them to have the courage to come get you when you're wounded and buried under heavy fire? These are not physical traits. These are mental traits.

Honor, courage, and committment are not physical traits. Justice, judgment, dependability, initiative, decisiveness, tact, integrity, enthusiasm, bearing,

unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty, and endurance are not purely physical traits. Any good Marine works on all of these, as they work on their physical

fitness. Any good Marine respects the other Marines efforts in this regard.

Because of this, I know that any Marine, male or female, can bring death and destruction 5.56 mm at a time from half a click away using only iron sights. I can count

on any Marine, male or female (even Wingers -- sorry guys, Marine joke), to get up out of that fighting hole, head around that corner, and bust down that door to bring

unholy misery to the enemy. It is the warrior ethos with which every Marine is imbued which makes this practically a guarantee.

See these articles, too:
http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/12/01/marine-pioneering-effort-to-move-women-into-combat/
http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/01/15582341-petite-but-proven-two-women-warriors-pass-elite-army-training-course?lite

Anonymous

I am proud to be registered with the Selective Service and have applied to be on my local draft board.

Anonymous

Has history not changed already? Who are we to say that things should stay the same from beginning to end? Just because men were the protectors, means little in this day and age. Take the lioness for example. She's the one who hunts. She's the one who protects. Think about how much society has changed. Women are just as able bodied, mentally stable and more than capable of doing ANYTHING a man can do.

Anonymous

Her story is riddled with inaccuracies and padded to self promote.
Get back in the kitchen bitch.

Pages

Stay Informed