When the first class of women at West Point were introduced to the infamous Indoor Obstacle Course, we were confronted with a series of challenges almost entirely geared to upper body strength. About ¾ of the way through, we had to get over "the wall" -- an eight foot vertical chunk of heavy wood. We were coached in the "approved solution": jump up and grab the top of the wall, do a pull-up to get your shoulders above the top of the wall, then flip your body over.
A solution that violated the laws of physics for non-male people whose center of gravity was somewhere below their shoulders.
In short order, we figured it out for ourselves: grab the top of the wall, hook your ankle over it, then your knee, then leverage the rest of your body over. Instructors observed, and taught subsequent classes the new technique, and soon women were conquering the obstacle at the same speed as the men.
In the wake of Secretary Panetta's historic decision to eliminate the combat exclusion rule for women, there will be much angst about women lacking the physical strength to perform in combat. The handwringing ignores some key "facts on the ground."
First, the business about the "average woman" being unable to carry a 200-lb man to safety. For starters, most service members are wiry and lean; they weigh far less than 200 lbs. And not for nothin', I'm six feet tall, and when I graduated West Point in 1980, weighed 175 pounds. Today's average infantryman couldn't carry ME off the battlefield. And the "average" woman (or man) doesn't volunteer for the military. My West Point roommate could do 13 pull-ups. Ran the two mile in 12:50... in combat boots. My classmate Lil Pfluke -- a world-class athlete, even in her fifties, after surviving breast cancer -- once fought to enter Ranger School, and the guys who know her believed she could pass easily.
Yes, these are West Pointers. And yes, many military women -- like many military men -- have no interest in the combat arms. But why would we deny an otherwise-qualified individual the right to serve in whatever capacity they choose?
Finally, there is the most important fact: women are already in combat. They have been fighting, winning, getting wounded, losing limbs and dying on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan (and earlier) for as long as we have fought those wars.
So, we can argue about push-ups, pull-ups, and body-carries -- but just as in the Indoor Obstacle Course, it's not about how you do it, it's about getting it done. Women have been fighting, in MP units, in convoys, in FETs, everywhere, and they have figured out how to get the job done. They get over the wall.
So why does it matter?
If we continue to pretend that women aren't in combat, and close some roles to them, we deny them the promotions that go to the men they fought next to, because "the guy is a combat vet." We make it much harder for them to access care for combat-related health issues, including PTSD, that women sometimes find themselves "ineligible" for. We perpetuate the myth that women aren't really warriors -- and in the military culture that means you are worth less.
We can, and must, show the respect due our women warriors: fitness for service is not limited by your gender. Secretary Panetta has taken the first step. I look forward to a thoughtful, data-based, but not endless process where we do this right. The new Defense Secretary must lead the Pentagon to set gender-neutral standards that pertain to the job that must be done. Integrate women effectively into units in ways that are constructive, not disruptive. And we will make our military better and stronger by assigning and promoting based on merit, nothing else.
We may even discover that push-ups are not the best measure of combat survival and victory.