U.S. women have been in combat one way or another at least since the 1989 invasion of Panama. That’s when Scripps Howard New Service’s Peter Copeland reported from the isthmus that women assigned to at least one operation in the Southern Command had been attacked and returned fire.
The information was never official, but the Pentagon refused to deny its accuracy when a reporter for a prominent West Coast newspaper tried to shoot down Copeland’s story as untrue. It was a sensitive subject at a time when women still were not expected to do any heavy lifting in the military. The thinking: They were potential mothers, and the weaker sex might not perform well under stress. Besides, it was a political hot potato.
But attitudes changed, and females unofficially carried some of the load when faced with it.
There have been numerous examples of women courageously fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although they’ve held noncombat assignments as medics, intelligence officers, military police and other jobs, they’ve also traveled with combat units and been drawn into the fighting. They not only have come under fire, they have returned it, been wounded and killed.
So the Pentagon’s recently announced decision to allow women in all aspects of the military – including combat – has been too long in coming, denying them the promotions and benefits that result from combat assignments.
In that respect, the U.S. military has been decades, if not centuries, behind other nations in giving a rifle or spear to a woman and expecting her to use it. During World War II, women were an integral part in the underground units that fought against Nazi oppression. They also risked life and limb to infiltrate and gather intelligence. Israeli women long have taken part in combat operations. Canada resolved the question in 1989 by giving women fighting status in all units.
Today’s women in the armed forces are as disciplined, skilled and tough in attitude and body as the men. And they can be at least as fierce as their male counterparts.
Consider the heroics of Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, a photographer who was attached to an Army ground unit during her second deployment to Iraq.
When the personnel carrier she was riding in came under attack, she saved the life of one of her wounded comrades, dragging the unconscious man to safety and using the vehicle’s mounted machine gun to return fire, the New York Times’ James Dao reported.
And when a medic arrived, Pearsall was sitting next to the wounded man, his damaged carotid artery clamped between her fingers. She had wrestled him into the carrier, although he was 6-foot-2 and weighed 200 pounds, nearly twice as heavy as she.
Not everyone will support outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to rescind the 1994 ban on women’s participation in combat, which he made after consulting with the military hierarchy. A congressional effort to turn back the clock with legislation is expected. That would be a mistake. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a fan of lifting the ban, was quoted as saying women should have the same opportunities as men in every aspect of military life.
In a press conference last week announcing the policy shift, Dempsey related a story about arriving in Baghdad as a division commander 10 years ago and clambering aboard a Humvee. He asked the driver where he was from and then slapped the turret gunner on the leg, asking, “Who are you?” The gunner leaned down and said, “I’m Amanda.”
“I realized something had changed and it was time to do something about it,” the general was quoted as saying.
The change took another decade and won’t be fully implemented for several more months, but it’s the right thing to do. Being put in harm’s way unofficially to satisfy a myth of inequality is dishonest. Women need to be recognized officially as full participants in military life, including its dangers, or excluded from battle zones altogether.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.