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April 20, 2014

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Women in combat: Another step forward

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Women in the military are going to get to serve in combat. They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, yet here we are. And about time.

“I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life,” retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught once told me.

Vaught is the president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. She retired from active duty in 1985, so she remembers a different era entirely. “I went to Vietnam, and when I found out I was going, the first thing I wanted to know was if I’d be trained in weapons. They told me I didn’t need to be. That’s unheard of today,” she said Wednesday when I caught up with her on the phone.

“And,” she added, “I wore my skirts.”

Now they wear fatigues and tote rifles. So the Joint Chiefs of Staff have bowed to reality and told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that “the time has come” to stop excluding women from combat positions. The transformation won’t happen immediately, and it might not be universal. But it’s still a groundbreaking change. When the recommendation became public Wednesday, except for a broadside from the Concerned Women for America (“our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness”), the reception seemed overwhelmingly positive.

It’s hard to remember — so many parts of recent history now seem hard to remember — but it was the specter of women under fire that did more than anything else to quash the movement for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s. “We kept saying we hope no one will be in combat, but, if they are, women should be there, too,” Gloria Steinem said.

The fear of putting women in the trenches has been dispelled on two fronts. One, of course, is the change in the way the American public thinks about women. The other is the shortage of trenches in modern warfare, when an officer on the front lines is not necessarily in a more dangerous position than a support worker. Shoshana Johnson, a cook, was shot in both ankles, taken captive and held for 22 days after her unit was separated from a convoy crossing the Iraqi desert. Lori Piestewa, a Native American and, like Johnson, a single mother, was driving in the same convoy full of clerks and maintenance workers. She was skillfully steering her Humvee through mortar fire when a truck immediately ahead of her jackknifed and her front wheel was hit by a rocket. She was fatally injured in the ensuing crash.

The biggest safety concern for women in the military is actually not so much enemy fire as sexual attacks from fellow members of their own service. Because the crime is so underreported, it’s impossible to say how many women suffer sexual assault while they’re in uniform, but 3,192 cases were recorded in 2011. Allowing women to get the benefits of serving in combat positions won’t make that threat worse. In fact, it might make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women’s issues.

The military’s idea of what constitutes a combat position is more about bureaucracy than bullets. Today women are on armed patrols and in fighter planes. But they can’t hold approximately 200,000 jobs officially termed “combat,” which often bring more pay and can provide a steppingstone for promotions. The system is complicated. But cynics might wonder whether some of the military brass fear women’s upward mobility more than the danger.

“We only have one four-star general who’s a woman,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who cheered the recommendation from the Joint Chiefs. It was, she said, “a great step forward for our military” and one that wasn’t really expected. Only recently, Gillibrand said, she and her allies declared victory when they merely got language in the defense authorization bill requiring the Defense Department to study the question of women in combat.

Women now make up almost 15 percent of the U.S. military, and their willingness to serve made the switch to an all-volunteer Army possible. They’ve taken their posts with such seamless calm that the country barely noticed. The specter that opponents of the ERA deemed unthinkable — our sisters and daughters dying under fire in foreign lands — has happened over and over and over. More than 130 women have died and more than 800 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives includes a female double-amputee in the person of the newly elected Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former military pilot who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

We’ve come a long, sometimes tragic, heroic way.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. Let's see what happens when women start coming home in body bags and coffins by the scores. Will we think it's okay then? Women have babies. Men don't. That's a huge difference between the two genders in my view.

    CarmineD