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September 21, 2017

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Nevada veterans applaud new roles for women in combat


Kristin M. Hall / AP

In a May 9, 2012, file photo, Capt. Sara Rodriguez, 26, of the 101st Airborne Division, carries a litter of sandbags during the Expert Field Medical Badge training at Fort Campbell, Ky.

The Defense Department’s announcement last week that women would be eligible to serve in combat roles was a historic change. But for many Nevada veterans, the new order is a standard that is long overdue.

“We had been trying for years, but I think we finally hit a point in society where society could accept it,” said Dottie Marsh, the women’s veterans advocate with the Nevada Chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “If this push had happened 20 years ago, society probably wouldn’t have accepted it. But with Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan, we saw that women are already serving in wars, so why not let them have the titles, the pay and the notability of it?”

Marsh, who served in the Navy during Desert Storm, is a veteran of what one might call the transitional generation. When she began serving, women weren’t allowed on combat ships or in Air Force fighter jets. By the time she left in 1995, the Navy and the Air Force had opened those roles to women.

The wars of the last decade have seen more women entering combat roles, holding jobs as medics, military police, engineers and other positions that routinely take them into the heart of combat. But since they are not the ones tasked to carry the guns and shoot the enemy, they aren’t considered part of the “combat” front line.

“If you look at society now, it’s changed so much that positions that we considered combat arms are no longer combat arms positions,” said David Sousa, the Nevada VFW’s junior vice commander who served in an all-male combat unit during the 1980s and has been to Iraq and Afghanistan in mixed units with the Nevada Army National Guard.

“In Afghanistan and Iraq, in certain areas, a combat zone is really a city,” he said.

The blurring of the lines of combat is all the more reason, many combat vets say, that the gender-based changes are overdue.

“Some guys are probably reluctant to see women serving in combat roles. But what’s the difference? They’re already in combat now,” said Gil Hernandez, who served and was wounded on the front lines in the Vietnam War in 1968.

“I was one of the grunts,” he said, in the type of unit that until Thursday was not open to women.

Hernandez served in the Marines. Because of its on-the-ground combat focus, the Marines has more male-only units than some other branches. The Army also maintains several all-male combat units, as does the Navy’s combat submarine fleet. This year will be the first time ever that many of those units integrate the two genders.

“It took a lot of work to keep each other alive. But when we’re fighting, it doesn’t matter who’s to your left or right,” Hernandez said. “If it had been a woman on the other side of me? You know, her blood is still red. Man, woman, black, white, I’m Mexican-American — that’s the one thing that we’ve got to remember. You know, our blood is still red.

“If they pass their physical just like I did, there’s no difference. And if they know how to shoot, hey, some of them might be able to shoot better than me.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey stressed the development of new standards when announcing the policy shift on women in combat roles.

“We’re acting to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” Dempsey said but added that the standards for performance readiness in any one particular field would be “gender-neutral.”

During the announcement, Dempsey said he hoped that opening all combat roles to women would also ameliorate some of the military’s documented problems with sexual harassment and assaults. But he voiced some concern about whether enough women would take advantage of the new opportunities.

But Nevada women who have made the climb outside of combat roles in the military say there’s bound to be a ready supply of women ready to take advantage of the new opportunities.

“I think there are a lot of women who would like to at least try to participate in those roles and have never been allowed to, even though they’ve been out on the front lines and in harm’s way for years,” said Cindy Kirkland, former adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard.

Though she rose to the highest possible rank in the Nevada National Guard, Kirkland remembers the difficulties — and cat-calls — she faced when she enlisted in 1973 as a Navy cryptologist. She was one of only seven women on a 5,000-person base in Guam.

“The seven of us got together one night; we sat down and had a little meeting because we thought, ‘We’ve got to deal with this and figure out the best way so we don’t piss everybody off but so that we can do our jobs,’” Kirkland said. “The women who really make a commitment to doing that kind of a mission, they’re not going to make that decision or go into that role with anything else in mind but performing well in that role. So, they’ll figure out a way to deal with all that other horse-stuff.”

Kirkland confessed that at some stages in her career she encountered pushback for being a woman, especially as she rose closer to the top ranks of her profession.

“As a woman, you had to work a little harder and prove yourself,” she said. “But that’s just the nature of human beings. When you’re in a culture of women being in those roles — because the mindset exists that as women, they just aren’t able to do it — you’re going to have to prove them wrong.”

So far, women aren’t yet coming out of the woodwork to enlist in the newly opened combat roles — partially because the military is exiting the bulk of its foreign wars. Also, Panetta has yet to release the guidelines for the positions now open to women.

But Nevada women are sure that once the parameters are set, women will be ready to join the new ranks.

“My experience working with the force through the years of my service is that I saw just as many women who were more than capable and more than willing to be in combat as there are men who are absolutely incapable and not interested in doing those roles,” Kirkland said.

Marsh agreed.

“Anybody who can do the position, pass the test and passed the physical can do the job,” she said. “There are definitely some ladies who have every skill available for those positions, and they want to do it, as well.”

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