Gidget Fuentes, San Diego Union-Tribune
26 August 2015
The military services are poised to lift all restrictions that have barred women from some of the front lines of combat and the advancements in rank and job that come with it. That is, unless the services make good arguments to keep as male only those combat-arms jobs, including thousands in special operations.
Two years ago, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed an end to the combat exclusion rule that kept female troops from direct combat jobs. The service secretaries have until Jan. 1 to evaluate performance standards to ensure they are gender-neutral and integrate women into those occupations. At the time of his decision, women made up about 15 percent of the military.
Technically speaking, as of Jan. 1, every position will be open to women. But the services also can argue to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff why it wants a job specialty or an assignment to remain closed to women, but the final decision rests with the defense secretary. “Exceptions must be narrowly tailored and based on a rigorous analysis of factual data regarding the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for the position,” Panetta wrote in the 2013 memo lifting the ground combat exclusion.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has voiced his support, telling the Senate Appropriations Committee in May that the military should continue “to expand combat positions available to women – because everyone who’s able and willing to serve their country should have full and equal opportunity to do so.”
Since Panetta’s move, the military has been chipping away some corners of the door that blocks women from certain jobs and combat assignments. But it remains unclear just how far the services and the military’s special
operations components will go to open the door wide in every job field and, more importantly for women, every assignment slot.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has extensively studied women and special operations forces, said U.S. Special Operations Command has been studying integration and is expected to submit its recommendations in July. Lemmon stopped short of predicting whether those premier special- ops assignments will include women, but she believes many in the community who have worked alongside women support the change – as long as standards remain the same.
“The Rangers I speak of, even the ones who didn’t like the idea, felt it was inevitable,” said Lemmon, an author who spent two years writing about the experiences of female soldiers who trained and deployed as part of female engagement teams alongside Army Rangers. “Whether (women) would qualify, that was another story.” “The wars we fight are changing, and so are the people,” she said.
Breaking that glass ceiling in the special operations community, however, is seen by women as an opportunity to serve, fight and sacrifice equally. The special operations forces that conduct “direct action,” including Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders, Army Rangers and Green Berets, are seen as the ultimate front-line assignment, Lemmon said, “doing something that they see as making a difference to the mission. It’s about purpose – it’s always about purpose.” The Army on June 16 lifted gender restrictions on 20,563 jobs, including combat engineers; not necessarily combat engineer slots in special operations units, however.
“We’ve just approved opening up all positions in engineer to females, we’re very close to approving all positions in field artillery for females,” Gen. Ray Odierno told soldiers during a “virtual” town hall with troops before that decision was announced. A decision on the Army’s biggest combat-arms communities – infantry and armor – may come out in October after ongoing tests and assessments are completed, he said.
In February, the Army opened 4,100 special commands, including Army Special Operations Command, Army National Guard Special Forces Group, Military Information Support Operations Command and Military Free Fall Operations. But it “does not include currently closed occupations and positions with closed skill identifiers,” Army Secretary John McHugh wrote. Those include Army Rangers and Special Forces, which have remained along with infantry, cavalry and armor.
The Navy’s elite “silent service” took another big step June 22, when the Navy announced the first group of female enlisted sailors to be screened for training and assigned to a submarine. Those women will join men who crew the Ohio-class submarine Michigan. Female officers have served on its larger submarines for several years in an initial test of crew integration.
The Navy had more women interested and qualified to take the job than it had spaces for them, officials said. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the amount of interest shown by enlisted women in wanting the opportunity to serve in the undersea warfare domain,” Rear Adm. Charles Richard, who commands Submarine Group 10 in Kings Bay, Ga., and led the Enlisted Women in Submarines Task Force Commander, said in a statement. “It’s an exciting time in the submarine force as we continue to move forward in shaping the future of our force, drawing from the best pool of talent possible.”
In recent years, female soldiers have accompanied special operations forces, including Army Rangers and Special Forces, attached as “cultural support teams” to better interact with local women in Afghan villages. But whether U.S. Special Operations Command will agree to any lifting of the exclusion to allow women assignment as Rangers, or Green Berets or Navy SEALs or Marine Raiders waits to be seen. Sentiment within the community is mixed.
A Special Operations Command survey found doubts among men that women could meet the demands of special operations, The Associated Press reported in April. Women also were concerned about the lowering of standards and, in turn, how that might reflect negatively on them.
Lemmon said Rangers she met who trained or worked with the female soldiers on the teams said “these women aren’t any different from us,” she said. “There’s no question, after 9/11 special operations folks I see speak about how these women made a difference.” Moreover, she said, “the most important thing, among women and men, was that the standards remain high.”
Lemmon detailed the work of those female soldiers in her book, “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” It tells the story of Combat Support Team soldiers. One of them was 1st Lt. Ashley White Stumpf, who was killed Oct. 22, 2011, when improvised explosive devices detonated during a patrol with Rangers. Two of the Rangers also died, including Rancho Bernardo High graduate Kristoffer B. Domeij, 29, a veteran Ranger on his 14th combat deployment.
“This is a positive story about what women could do. This is a story of what they have already done, and the difference they made in the battlefield” – in special operations and across the military services, she said. Those women “had a skill set that was useful, and they were seen as contributing to the mission.”
That the female soldiers excelled in that training and mission in a spec-ops community that’s been continuously deployed and primed to solve whatever problem is in front of them is a testament to all of them, Lemmon said. “It’s not an easy thing to come in, fit in and make a difference.” With deadlines looming, it seems all eyes this spring have been on the Army’s Ranger School.
In late June, three female soldiers were hoping the third time could be the charm for them. The women had
passed the Army’s physical fitness test for entry into the two-month Ranger School, held at Fort Benning, Ga. It was their third try for the school, after having been dropped twice from the first phase of the training, called the Darby Phase. They, along with a number of men, were allowed to recycle into the next class, which started June 22. Col. David Fivecoat, who commands the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, which runs Ranger School, told the Army Times newspaper that the women “earned” another shot, having completed the fitness test during the Ranger Assessment Phase.
“The overall performance of the three ... was very high. All three were close to making it through the Darby Phase ... That is a daunting task for anyone, male or female.” Roughly fewer than half the students graduate from the school, which is considered the Army’s premier leadership course.
Opening the school to women, however, doesn’t mean female soldiers who graduate Ranger School get to be Rangers. Graduates are Ranger-qualified and earn the coveted “Ranger” tab to display on their shoulders. But to get the coveted tan beret and to serve and be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, a Ranger must complete the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, which has been closed to women.