Sisters in arms: The history of women in the US military

Last week the US announced it would allow women to fight on the front line. David Usborne traces their history  in the US military – and talks to the woman who fought to change the law

When Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt woke one day in early 2005 at her base in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan, her duties as a US Army civil affairs specialist had been put on hold. She was diverted from her reconstruction mission to join some colleagues who were heading out on a top-priority manhunt for a militant. They needed her.

Before she knew it, Sgt. Hunt was huddled on an army chopper flying across the mountains. Even today she doesn’t know exactly where she went. Army intelligence had intercepted cellphone calls from a “high-value target” and they thought they knew the village where they had come from. The men – and Hunt – were being dropped there. The mission: find the phone.

“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” Hunt recalls today. She not prone to hyperbole, omitting to mention that she was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, for which she received the Purple Heart. All the women in the village would have to be searched and the crew needed a woman to do it. “They didn’t want to pull some stranger from another unit,” she says.

Not only was the outing not in Hunt’s job description, it seemed to violate, in spirit at least, a 1994 law banning women from front-line combat. Like thousands of her sisters-in-arms, Hunt has never complained about what was required of her. What did bother her was the policy, which ignored the reality on the ground – namely that women were frequently in the line of fire as often as men. The law, she explains, has made it harder for women to forge fruitful military careers and, because it makes them “second-class citizens”, it may also have contributed to the high rates of sexual assault and harassment in the US forces.

For America’s overwhelmingly male military leadership, the status quo has presumably been comfortable. Never mind that women have been rapidly expanding their presence in the ranks over the last decade. They now account for 15 per cent of the US military. Since the start of the Iraq and Afghan wars, more than 144 female troops have been killed and more than 860 have been wounded.

It was out of frustration that Hunt and three other women – two in the Army reserves, as she is, and one Marine Corps Lieutenant – lodged a lawsuit against the Pentagon in November last year demanding that the 1994 combat exclusion policy be rescinded. Filed in a San Francisco, the suit alleged that nearly 240,000 military positions were unfairly closed to women. Despite backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, everyone thought they had a long fight on their hands.

In fact, a new breeze of equality was by then already blowing through the Department of Defence. Notably, the Obama administration had already rescinded the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law that dates almost to the same era and had the effect of maintaining prejudice against gays and lesbians hoping to fight for their country. At the time of the suit’s filing, Leon Panetta, soon to retire as Secretary of Defence, had already begun opening some combat roles to women by increments. Then last week happened.

In a watershed announcement that caught many by surprise, Mr Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday that the 1994 law would be repealed and that gender equality would be established across the US armed forces by 2016. The details of how it would be implemented would take that long to work out, they said, and a few roles might remain men-only – for example if certain levels of physical strength are required. But the principle has been established.

“Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield,” said Mr Panetta. “The goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender.” Mr Dempsey also noted the problem of elevated rates of sexual assault and harassment in the services. “I believe that’s because we’ve had separate classes of military personnel. I have to believe the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

Debate over the shift is inevitable. “They are as good as any soldier in the theatre,” said Lt Col. Jeffrey Harpstripe, who has just returned from Afghanistan. “As far as women in combat roles, it’s going to be a controversial subject. I’m sure the women can do it, but I think it will be a very difficult transition period.” Some conservative groups see political correctness at work. “Liberal media and feminists are trying to use the military as a laboratory for the testing of a controversial 20th-century social science theory – that men and women are interchangeable in all roles,” sniffed the Centre for Military Readiness.

Yet, the most convincing argument in support of the shift may be the evidence that women are not exactly away from the front lines now. The story of female courage that can be traced back to the Second World War, when women were deployed to Europe in their thousands. Memories last week were also stirred of the US invasion of Panama in 1989, when Army Capt. Linda L Bray was famously commanding an all-male platoon of military police officers when it overran an elite unit of Panamanian soldiers. She was the first woman in US military history to ever take charge of a platoon in combat.

Bray, who is now 53, was accused by her male superiors of embellishing what had happened and Congress was drawn into a fierce debate precisely about combat roles for women. But her actions also drew public praise from Marlin Fitzwater, the spokesman for then-President George H W Bush.

Bray is among those cheering last week’s announcement. “I’m so thrilled, excited. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that our nation’s military is taking steps to help women break the glass ceiling,” she said. “It’s nothing new now in the military for a woman to be right beside a man in operations.”

Another who spoke out in support was one whose name is even fresher in America’s collective memory. She is Jessica Lynch, the private taken prisoner when her unit took a wrong turn at the start of the Iraq war and who was saved by special forces in a mission that turned her into a national hero.

The rescue, America’s first to end successfully since Vietnam – and the first ever for a woman – would earn her notoriety, too. For initial reports from the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon. Lynch was the innocent party in the deception, stating afterwards: “That wasn’t me. I’m not about to take credit for something I didn’t do ... I’m just a survivor.” Ironically, now the rules have changed the US military is likely to have many more real Jessica Lynches with whom it can battle for hearts and minds. “For years, women have been integral to our successes in the fight for freedom throughout the world,” she said this week.

But few are likely to be more pleased by the promise of gender equality in the ranks than Staff Sgt. Hunt, who helps run a small PR company in Maryland when she is not called up as reservist. “I like to think ... our filing the lawsuit a few weeks ago ... helped maybe educate them more. There is a certain feeling of vindication that the people at the top agree with you and something that you have been working for is being changed,” she said. “It’s overdue. It’s been at least a decade overdue.”

Global view: Combat roles

UK

Women are allowed to serve in the British Army but they are barred from being posted to ground close-combat roles in which they would “engage and potentially kill” enemy soldiers.

A Ministry of Defence review was carried out in 2010, but the research was deemed to be “inconclusive”.

The document claimed the ban was “a proportionate means of maintaining the combat effectiveness of the Armed Forces and was not based on a stereotypical view of women’s abilities but on the potential risks associated with maintaining cohesion in small mixed-gender tactical teams engaged in highly dangerous close-combat operations”.

Israel

The Jewish state has the only military in the world in which it is compulsory for women to serve. A majority of officers – 51 per cent – in the army, navy and air force are women. Only three per cent of combat positions are filled by women.

Canada

Female soldiers served in combat roles in both  Afghanistan and Iraq, following reforms brought in by a tribunal  held under the country’s Human Rights Act in 1989.

Norway

Became the first country to allow women to serve in its naval submarines, when it began allowing females to serve in all military functions in 1985. One female former defence minister, Kristin Devold, boasted of the country using “targeted emails and SMS messages” to boost recruitment among women.

Libya

In the dying days of the regime run by Colonel Gaddafi – the dictator known for his female bodyguards – the state unveiled to the press 500 women who had received weapons training to defend their leader.

Rob Hastings

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