Women soldiers are losing the fight

Published 2:01 pm Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Women warriors battling in Afghanistan and Iraq will remain second-class citizens, owing to action in the House of Representatives this week. Though a commission appointed by Congress recommended lifting the official ban on women in combat, a proposal to do that in this year’s defense bill failed. The vote shortchanges women trying to climb the ranks of military brass and flies in the face of war-zone reality.

“I’d be hard-pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today or who’s served in Iraq over the last few years did so without facing the same risk as their male counterparts.” That’s the reality for the more than 260,000 women deployed in America’s two wars over the past 10 years, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But a 1994 ban on female assignments to units “whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground” prevents many military women from moving up the promotion ladder — which relies on combat success — while doing nothing to protect their safety.

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“In Iraq, the way the war is, anywhere you are is the front lines,” Marine Mary Carnes told NPR at the height of that conflict. Experiences like hers prompted Congress in 2009 to create the commission to study women and minorities in the military. In March, when the commission recommended lifting the restriction on combat duty, it cited the ban as one of the reasons there are so few high-ranking female officers.

But resistance to change runs hard, especially in the ranks of some retired military who can’t fathom women going “nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what’s on your back, no hygiene and no TV,” as retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen described it when a panel of military women appeared before the commission. “How many of you would volunteer to live like that?”

“I have lived like that,” shot back Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in Iraq. Now No. 2 at Veterans Affairs, Duckworth insisted, “I’ve lived out there with the guys, and I would do it. It’s about the job.” Lots of military women have now lived like that, doing the job. No one claims it’s easy.

When Army Sgt. Kayla Williams recounted to NPR her six months as the only woman with a unit on a mountainside in Iraq, she admitted her buddies sometimes crossed the line from friendly teasing to harassment. But she thinks the official restrictions contributed to a sense that she was fair game. If women aren’t equals, she argues, men are less likely to respect them: “The fact that women can’t be in combat arms jobs allows us to be portrayed as less than fully soldiers.”

Most of the canards against lifting the combat ban are downright insulting, given the heroics of many female fighters. The stereotypes — women aren’t tough enough, they will distract the men and destroy unit cohesion — have been proven false over and over. But to us here’s the most insulting argument: The country will sour on war if women are killed.

That’s an insult to the 137 women who have lost their lives in the war zones, and it’s even more of an insult to the more than 5,000 men who have died. It implies that Americans care more about their daughters than their sons — that we will tolerate war as long as it’s men in those body bags but will turn against it when women are its victims. That reasoning would horrify any parent who has lost a son.

But we’re likely to hear it again when Congress eventually does take up legislation to carry out the commission’s recommendations sanctioning what women are already doing — fighting and dying in battle zones. And even if a bill officially allowing women in combat passes, the Defense Department will have final say on when to implement it.

Because the Pentagon is already dealing with what the spokesman calls a “significant cultural change” by lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule dealing with gays in the military, there’s no appetite for tackling another tricky issue right now. So one more generation of military women will leave their families, head into dangerous territory, some will die, and many will be injured — that we know. We also know that they won’t receive the promotions they deserve or achieve positions of leadership because of a piece of paper that tells them they may not serve in combat even as bombs burst all around them.

(Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.)