The Pentagon has a policy that bars women from being assigned to units whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat. There's a debate going on about whether that policy should change. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's National Security Correspondent Rachel Martin her series — and reactions to it.
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SCOTT SIMON, host:
The wars that U.S. troops fight don't have frontlines. Anyone in uniform can get caught up in combat, including the thousands of women who have served already in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has a policy now on the books that bars women from being assigned to units whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat. And there's a debate going on about whether that policy should change to reflect the reality on the ground.
All this week on MORNING EDITION, NPR's Rachel Martin has been exploring the issue, profiling women at different stages of their military careers. We've gotten a lot of comments from listeners about the series. Rachel Martin joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.
RACHEL MARTIN: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: There are a lot of people who wrote in about your series and asked very bluntly can women physically keep up in combat?
MARTIN: Yeah, this was an issue that came up a lot and frankly it's really the first thing many people point to when you talk about whether women should be allowed into ground combat units like infantry, artillery or special forces. Are they strong enough to do the work? And one of our listeners, Brian Schmitt, wrote in and, Scott, I'll let you read his comment.
SIMON: Mr. Schmitt says: The average female cannot carry the required per-soldier combat load. Putting a woman in a normal infantry squad will force the other members of the squad to physically carry the gear that she is not able to.
MARTIN: So, you can see that if a woman can't carry her own load that that would be a problem, especially in a combat unit. Now, right now the Army has actually different standards for men and women when it comes to physical fitness and women are held to a lower standard. Male and female soldiers that I spoke with say that that shouldn't be the case. There should be one standard and that that would eliminate any fear that a woman assigned to a combat unit in particular wouldn't be able to hold her own.
SIMON: What other issues came up?
MARTIN: Talking about women in combat, you're talking about women in a largely male environment, right, and that triggers the issue of sexual assault or harassment. There were people in our online discussion who said the military needs to do more to punish those who commit sexual assault or harassment. But there were also people saying that in some ways mixing men and women together in intimate intense situations, you're inviting problems with sexual harassment. And that creates dangerous distractions.
SIMON: Distractions that disrupt the unit from pursuing the overall work that they have, which, of course, is urgently important.
MARTIN: Exactly. And another way to talk about this is the issue of unit cohesion; keeping a unit focused on its mission. So, say there's an issue where a male soldier harassed a female soldier. She goes to her commander. He tells her to file a complaint. Everyone finds out about it. Now, there's tension in the unit and that's a distraction.
And one listener I spoke with, who's in the Army right now said that she'd support the idea of opening up the combat arms units to women but she's not so sure men and women should be put in those units together. Let's take a listen.
Corporal ANNIE SPARKS (U.S. Army): My name is Annie Sparks. I'm a corporal in the United States Army. I'm stationed in Ft. Polk, Louisiana. If females do end up going in combat arms I believe that they should be in separate units. A lot of it has to do with distraction and I think that it would play a huge part if we were separated because then we would be able to take care of the mission at hand.
MARTIN: Now, Scott, how realistic is it to think about creating all female infantry units? Probably not very, but this is exactly one of the issues that some in military circles are grappling with.
SIMON: I get that there were also a lot of comments questioning whether or not combat was just appropriate for women.
MARTIN: This is an unsettling issue for a lot of people and there were a lot of comments from men and women about this. Here's one of them.
Mr. KEVIN WILSON: This is Kevin Wilson and I'm from Willard, Missouri. I think that my feelings are a little more old-fashioned, and that would be that men should do their best to be the protectors in society, more than women. People end up hurt physically, mentally, emotionally and bear those scars throughout their lives, and I just would hate to think of anyone in that situation, especially women.
MARTIN: And, Scott, there were other similar concerns raised: The issue of pregnancy; how women can, in one listener's words, get out of combat by getting pregnant which undermines the unit's effectiveness. Also, this idea that Kevin mentioned, that men feel some kind of innate need to protect women and that could end up creating tensions as well. Still, there are women who do want to do this kind of work.
SIMON: Well, and as you note, if there are women who want to be in ground combat units, is it clear to you that this would it be voluntary or if every woman in the armed services would be vulnerable to that kind of assignment?
MARTIN: That's exactly the sticking point in this debate for many people. At this point, if a man goes into a recruiting office and says I want to join the Army, he doesn't get to choose whether he's put in the infantry or not. Now, if the policy changes if the rule changes and women are allowed into combat units - would it be the same for the women? There are some who say, if you sign up for the military, you should expect to have to engage in the fight you can't assume you'll get a desk job. Others say women should get a choice.
But that idea that women can opt out and men can't, that's part of what exacerbates the overall gender divide in the military in the first place.
SIMON: Rachel, is this just a lot of talk? Is this likely to change?
MARTIN: There is recognition, Scott, at the highest levels of the military, that the current policy just does not reflect the reality on the ground. So, if the assignment policy - keeping women out of direct ground combat units - was meant to keep women out of direct ground combat then it's not working because in these wars that can happen all the time.
At this point the Pentagon is not talking about changing this, but there is a congressionally-appointed commission that's been debating this issue for more than a year. They are expected to recommend to Congress and the president next month that the ban on women in combat units should be lifted.
SIMON: Rachel, thanks very much.
MARTIN: You're very welcome.
SIMON: NPR National Security Correspondent Rachel Martin.
If you missed any stories in Rachel's series, Women on the Frontlines, you can hear them at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.