Yesterday, Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary for Defense, announced that the ban on women undertaking combat roles in the U.S. military, specifically the infantry and armor regiments, will be lifted.
This isn't a 'shoot from the hip' decision with no considered thought; it is a debate that has been circling for decades. There is now, more than ever, sufficient evidence to indicate that certain woman have the right qualifications, as well as the physical and psychological attributes, to operate with the same effectiveness as their male counterparts in combat roles.
The question should not reside upon gender, but the ability to get the job done. We all have strengths and weaknesses: Some soldiers are as strong as an ox, some can sprint like the wind, some can march to the ends of the earth, and some have the resilience of a camel, but most are capable across the playing field. To those that question a woman's endurance, a 73-year-old Japanese lady climbed Everest for the second time in May 2012 (the first time she was 63); a woman successfully walked to the North Pole and sailed solo around the world; and women are competing as professional athletes at levels most men would dream of reaching.
To those that question a women's 'stomach' for the atrocities of war, females are part of the fabric of contemporary warfare and have been for years. Interrogators, combat medics, assault helicopter and close air support jet pilots, submariners, engineers, and intelligence officers are just some of the roles that females currently undertake with significant effect. This year we will also witness the first women embarking on U.S. attack submarines and the opening of infantry and armor roles. The 292,000 U.S. female military personnel have deployed on operations to Iraq and Afghanistan and 152 have lost their lives. Women have earned the right to be considered for selection and training in all combat roles.
Such career paths will, in reality, not appeal to most of the U.S. female population, in fact many men would not be attracted to a life in the infantry (I include myself). The few that have the desire will become fewer as they proceed through the rigors of selection and combat training. Teething problems will occur as men that have been operating in the military for decades adjust; it is human nature and should be expected. Embracing women in the infantry and armor battalions will require strong leadership at all levels of the command structure. Women should expect the same treatment as their male counterparts. Review procedures regarding female recruits who do not make the grade, need to be watertight. Basic training instructors will need support to ensure they are taking the right approach, and infantry training establishments should include women on the staff as soon as possible (if they are not doing so already). Problems should be expected, but it is only a matter of time before women in all combat roles across all militaries becomes the norm.
Finally, I would like to commemorate this piece to Michelle Jurd -- a sharp and supremely effective female Royal Air Force navigator that I had the pleasure of serving in combat with during the 2003 Gulf War. She was the epitome of why women should be given the opportunity to serve in the Combat Arms. Michelle tragically perished in a motor vehicle accident in 2008. Rest in Peace.