A Closer Look at Women In Combat
The military's lift of the combat ban for women potentially opens up thousands of front-line positions, but many women in uniform argue they've long served in front-line units. Host Neal Conan talks to Lt. Col. Samantha Nerove about what the change may mean and her experiences in the military.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Today, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced he will lift rules that barred women from service in units likely to find themselves in combat on the ground.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Every time I visited the warzone, every time I've met with troops, reviewed military operations and talked to wounded warriors, I've been impressed with the fact that everyone, everyone, men and women alike, everyone is committed to doing the job. They're fighting, and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I believe that we must open up service opportunities for women as fully as possible.
And therefore today, General Dempsey and I are pleased to announce that we are eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women. And we are moving forward with the plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service. Our purpose is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable service members regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs. If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job - and let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job - if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.
CONAN: It's still not exactly clear what this is going to mean. Women are already allowed to serve on most Navy ships, like combat aircraft, to support roles in warzone. Now, each branch of the military will have to decide how to implement new rules where assignments are based on capabilities, not on gender. So women who serve in uniform, how does this change things for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us here in Studio 3A is Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Nerove. She's been in the U.S. Army since 1988, served in Operation Desert Storm, in Bosnia and in Iraq. Thanks very much for being with us today.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL SAMANTHA NEROVE: Thank you.
CONAN: And what does this announcement mean for you?
NEROVE: Well, what it means for me is yay. The argument is over, and it's time now to implement this new policy. We need to do it without compromising standards, without compromising combat effectiveness. And I think that's the key in what our secretary of defense said, is maintain who we are as the strongest fighting force and the strongest, most effective force for good in our history and present day in moving forward.
CONAN: And what would it meant for your career had this been in effect this policy when you signed up?
NEROVE: Well, funny you ask that because as a young lieutenant over 20 years ago, I applied for Ranger school. I tried to get in 17 times. I submitted the applications, all the forms, and I was denied 17 times. But I wanted to go to Ranger school. I wanted to know everything they knew. I did not want it given to me. I didn't - I had never even thought about lowered standards. I wanted to earn it. I wanted to earn every bit of it because I wanted to be the most effective, the most knowledgeable, the best officer I could be.
CONAN: You were clearly not allowed to go to Ranger school. What did you end up doing?
NEROVE: Well, I was a signal officer, and I was also a paratrooper. I jumped out of airplanes.
CONAN: Perfectly good airplanes.
NEROVE: Perfectly good airplanes. Really, you know, the joke is, didn't say much for my intelligence, but it sure said...
NEROVE: ...a lot for my hooah factor.
CONAN: We're talking about women in combat. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as you think about your sisters in uniform today, this clears a lot of career opportunities for officers and for enlisted as well.
NEROVE: Absolutely, absolutely. What it does is it opens up what had been a glass ceiling because with Ranger school is it's training, it's opportunity, and even with promotions because if two people are equal and they come into a promotion category, even if it's not supposed to be this way, even if people say, oh, no, we're not looking at that, well, between a man and a woman if they - if a male soldier has Ranger school, then obviously he has that training, he's ready for combat, and the woman equal in all other ways doesn't have that, which way would we leave for a promotion?
CONAN: There are also entire areas - infantry for one - where women are now going to eligible.
NEROVE: Yes. And that's when you give women the opportunities to serve on what is called the front line. But really, where is that front line? What is a front line now? That front line moves. Rockets, bombs and bullets, they hit everywhere. I was not a combat armed soldier myself, but I was in 78 mortar attacks.
NEROVE: 78, and that's a combination between Desert Storm and OIF. But I wasn't...
CONAN: Operation Iraqi Freedom, yeah.
NEROVE: Operation Iraqi Freedom, yes.
NEROVE: But I wasn't on the front line.
CONAN: Well, again, and particularly in Iraq, where that front line was was a fluid thing.
NEROVE: Absolutely. And we have women serving in combat roles now. So in many ways, this is an acknowledgment of what is currently happening.
CONAN: Stay with us. We're talking about the Defense Department's decision today to lift the ban on women in combat.
Up next, your calls. Women who serve in uniform, what does this change mean for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
About an hour ago, the secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, made it official. Women, a group that makes up roughly 15 percent of the U.S. military, will no longer be banned from combat. Details remain to be ironed out. Many women say they've served on the front lines for years already. Today, we want to hear from women who serve in uniform. What does this change mean for you? 800-989-8255. Email: Talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Army Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Nerove. And let's see if we get a caller in on the line. This is Cathleen(ph). Cathleen with us from Naples, Texas.
CATHLEEN: Hello. I am a United States Navy Vietnam-era vet, and I do not believe this ban should be lifted. I don't think it's a good idea.
CONAN: And why is that?
CATHLEEN: We serve proudly. We have done our jobs. I know these women on - that wind up on the (unintelligible) front lines, but I do not think that it should become standard operation procedures. It's too close quarters. We are not physically - I don't believe we are physically or mentally capable of handling too much of that front line combat situation. I just think it's wrong. And I sure as heck don't want to see a bunch of women on my Navy ships.
CONAN: Well, that's already happened so...
CATHLEEN: It's - yeah, and I still don't think it's right. I think there's just too much of an opportunity for not good things to happen.
CONAN: Cathleen, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
CATHLEEN: You're welcome.
CONAN: Colonel Nerove, we heard Secretary Panetta say earlier today qualifications would not be changed. The physical qualifications, presumably, that includes but in terms of the other points about Cathleen's call. I wonder if you had any comment.
NEROVE: That's the important thing. Do not change standards. Standards have to be maintained to maintain the United States military as the strongest fighting force in the world. And that's where it comes to the key point. The comparison still is: Are women as strong as men? And that's where people keep comparing. And there are some men who are not as strong other men, some women are not as strong. There are some women are stronger than some men.
The comparison needs to stop being about women versus men and vice versa. The comparison needs to be the individual to the standard. If the standard is met, then that individual can do the job. And that's what our secretary of defense is saying. He has lifted the ban. And he is saying that if a person can do the job, they can now assume that role.
CONAN: Here's an email from David just to that point. Airborne school had different standards for women in 1978. Pull-ups were modified. Is that still true? And if so, is it fair? Is it still true?
NEROVE: Let's see. I went to airborne school in 1989, and there were different standards. And the women's PT standard is different than men.
CONAN: OK. Let's see if we get another caller in on the line. Let's go to Tanya(ph), and Tanya is on the line with us - if I can get this properly done - Tanya is with us from New York City.
TANYA: That's right. I served 15 years. I'm a Vietnam-era vet. When I served in the reserves, I actually trained infantry men in basic training, but I couldn't serve in the infantry. Later on, I got my commission. I was airborne qualified. I was a military police commander, but I was blocked from commanding a combat support military police company. And I was also a chemical officer originally in my initial branch - and Reagan at that time, President Reagan closed all maneuver brigade assignments to chemical officers, which compelled me to transfer to the Military Police Corps for leadership - more leadership opportunities. If you're taken out of a maneuver brigade working at combat armor brigade or infantry brigade, you're obviously going to be less competitive for promotion if you served in a training brigade, which happens to a lot of women because of the law and because of the policy in the United States Army.
And then that really hurt me, I think, later because I transferred to the MP Corps but couldn't get a combat support company. And at the same time, I was nominated as the junior officer, a top junior officer in my command. I was nominated to teach at West Point. I was invited to apply to the junior officer development program with the joint chiefs of staff.
CONAN: So if I could summarize it, promising officer who was blocked from top command assignments because of her sex.
TANYA: That's absolutely it. It comes down to (unintelligible) didn't come down to ability. I was physically fit. As the lieutenant colonel said, we had different standards but at the end of the day, we were able to do the same things. And I think that what needs to happen is this implementation needs to be fair. They need to come up with specific job performance objectives and standards, which doesn't exist consistently across the board. And I actually think one of the problems that faces smaller people in general, disrespective of gender, is the fact that a lot of the equipment in the military doesn't fit smaller people well. You can actually buy better equipment off the shelf.
CONAN: And there's been a big redesign, I know, of the armored vest so...
NEROVE: Oh, that is so true. That is - I'm 5'2". I weigh 120 pounds. And not many things have ever fit me. When I was a paratrooper, let's just say things didn't fit. I made do, but things didn't fit.
CONAN: So those trousers, blouse, automatically, whether you wanted them to or not.
NEROVE: Whether I wanted them to or not, absolutely.
CONAN: All right. Tanya, thanks very much for the call. Hats in the air today with this announcement?
TANYA: Yeah. This is a great day for America. It's great for the military, but it's better even for America. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see. We go next to - this is Kim(ph), and Kim is on the line from Beaufort, North Carolina.
KIM: Yes. I was a marine officer on active duty for eight years, and I've served both in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I agree one of your previous callers that there really is no front line. You know, I've been engaged in firefights, mortar attacks, et cetera. But one of the big changes I think that this will lead to is as an officer, I had the opportunity to go through six months of basic infantry officer training. But enlisted Marines don't have that option. They get four weeks of Marine combat training if they're female or in a support (unintelligible). And I really think that this would open the door for them to get more effective training.
CONAN: So more effective training and, therefore, more opportunities.
KIM: More opportunities. And I will also say that while I was at my basic officer course, when I was picking my job, my occupational specialty, I was actually counseled by my commanding officer when I said that I wanted to be a combat engineer that that probably wasn't a good specialty for me because I wouldn't have an opportunity for promotion since I wouldn't be able to go to the actual combat engineering side of (unintelligible).
CONAN: And at what rank did you retire?
KIM: I was a Marine (unintelligible) or (unintelligible).
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.
KIM: Thank you.
CONAN: And here's an email that we have. This from Kenneth(ph) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. What I've not heard discussed is the risk that women face if captured as prisoners of war, and that's rape. The threat would appear to be much higher for female prisoners of war than for male POWs. It's obviously - I believe he's correct.
NEROVE: And I will take that. I'll take that question. It is, and that's something that we face and that's something that I can tell you, from personal experience, I had to think through. When I went to Desert Storm, we didn't know what we were experiencing. I was - I went on the fourth plane that went over. And we didn't know what we were flying into. We didn't know what the threat was. Was that threat there? Absolutely. I went out - I was in the desert setting up signal sites. And to say that I was not on the front line, I wouldn't say that that was accurate. I had AK-47s pointed in my face. I stared the barrel of more than one AK-47 because Bedouins didn't want to see women doing anything.
Was a threat of capture there? Was a threat of something terrible? Yes. Did I know it was there? Did I make the decision to be there? Yes. That's my decision to make. This is America, land of free, home of the brave.
CONAN: You are set to retire from the Army later this year. This after some considerable treatment for injuries you received in Iraq.
CONAN: If when this is implemented, there will be more women with injuries if we go into combat again. That's also true.
NEROVE: Yes, there will. There will be more men with injuries. There will be women with injuries if we go to war any time. That's the danger of going to war. This is a volunteer army. Every single one of us make the decision to fight and/or die for our country. And that's a decision I made when I came into the military. I made the decision to lay down my life for this country.
CONAN: Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Nerove is with us here in Studio 3A. We're talking about the decision by the Pentagon announced earlier today by the secretary of defense to lift the ban on women serving in combat. As long as they could they meet the qualification, there is no role they can be denied. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And let's get Darren(ph) on the line. Darren with us from Homer, Alaska.
DARREN: Hey. Good morning. I just wanted to say I agree with the Pentagon's recent decision. I just have a few comments in regards to unit cohesion. I spent six years in the Army. And I can just say I realize soldiers are held to a higher standard, but it's not always the case. And I just - I mean, I've seen - when a woman walks in the room, soldiers act like college boys. I've seen affairs. I've seen relations between officers and the unlisted. I see that happen a lot, and it's commonly been what Signal Corps, communications medics, the non-front line units that this just goes on. And just see that affecting unit cohesion of the infantry, in particular where to - have women in it.
And another comment I had with this in regards to the standard. I know it hasn't even worked out yet, but I hear a lot about the standards. I just would believe that women should be held to the men's standard for things such as infantry, Ranger, SEALs. They should - I think men have to do something, like, 35 push-ups and women, the number is a lot less. So I just think that women should be held to men's standard if they're going to be in those positions. But I'm happy that this has happened and I'm glad to see our military changing. I just think that it hasn't been worked out all the way yet.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. Colonel Nerove, you've talked about the physical standards issue before. But what about the unit cohesion that he mentioned?
NEROVE: The unit cohesion issue is something that does need to be addressed, and that becomes a leadership issue. And leadership needs to be aware of this and completely in tuned to what's happening in the unit and maintain the highest level of standards to ensure that they are not the problems that he addressed. Standards - one of the things about standards is I've been a proponent of one PT, physical fitness. One standard. Not a men's standard and a woman's standard. It should be one standard. That's my personal take. One standard.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And if that's the take, then there will be few, if any women, in the SEALs, Delta Force, that sort of thing.
NEROVE: Well, I guess, we have to see about that.
CONAN: I guess we would.
NEROVE: Because if we're talking about push-ups, back in the day, I was popping out, you know, on a bad day, 70 push-ups. On a good day, 90 push-ups. So, you know, I could do a few push-ups, and there were lots more people like me. So, yeah, maybe we would see a few more. But really, that depends on who wants to do that. Now, the standards really does become an issue. And, you know, John Lilyea, who is one of the founders of "This Ain't Hell" blog site, who's a friend and a fellow Desert Storm veteran, he also brought up the standards and are we going to - as a military, push too many women into the military just so this is going to look good, just to meet a quota.
And I would say the answer has to be absolutely not. We have to maintain a standard. We don't want to bring women in untrained or too fast as he has talked about in his blog. We need to maintain where we are, the standards and the training. We need to do this right.
CONAN: Here's an email from Kimberly(ph): I'm a female in the Army. I've been serving honorably for over 22 years. I was in one of the first waves that allowed women into the Patriot missiles, a combat arm MOS. And while we were no initially well-received, after about 10 years, I noticed a significant difference. The younger soldiers were more open to women serving side by side with men. I applaud the new rule as long as the women can meet all the rigors and job standards, that they should have all of the same opportunities. For too long, we have had to over perform just to prove that we are at adept at the same job.
And let's see if we can get - this is - another Kimberly(ph). Kimberly on the line with us from Salt Lake City.
KIMBERLY: Hello. Sam, it's so good to hear your voice. I haven't heard from you since 2008. And I am absolutely thrilled about the ability for women to serve in combat units. I think it's absolutely wonderful. I served as a medic in the Army from 2001 to 2005, and deployed to Iraq at the very beginning of the war. And I remember - go ahead.
CONAN: And where do you know Colonel Nerove from?
KIMBERLY: We met in California a few years ago, in 2008, I believe.
CONAN: You remember?
NEROVE: Oh, absolutely. Kimberly, wow. And...
KIMBERLY: I know and it was a surprise.
NEROVE: Yeah. This is great. Kimberly did an amazing bike ride and has done some just fantastic, fantastic work working with soldiers and she stayed involved in the military community even after the military. She was a phenomenal medic sergeant overseas.
CONAN: Kimberly, we just have a few seconds left. And so the last 30 seconds is yours.
KIMBERLY: Well, I'd say thanks to (unintelligible). He was a colonel in the Army, who said, you know, I think in your lifetime, Kimberly, you and my daughter Sarah(ph) could be a Ranger. And I thought there is no way. I'd never thought in a million years this would be happening. And I think it's absolutely amazing. I'm so excited and so thrilled for my sisters-in-arms.
CONAN: Thank you, Kimberly, very much for the call. Appreciate it.
KIMBERLY: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Colonel Nerove, thank you very much.
NEROVE: Thank you. I appreciate that.
CONAN: Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Nerove
, she's been in the U.S. Army since 1988, served, among other places Operation: Desert Storm, in Bosnia and in Iraq. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at how dogs went from living in the wild to living in our homes and became man and women's best friend. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.