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Ending Combat Ban More Change In Thinking Than In Reality

In the wake of the Pentagon lifting a ban on women in combat, host Rachel Martin speaks with Gen. Heidi Brown, who commanded a combat arms brigade in Iraq. Martin also talks to former Army Special Forces medic Greg Jackson, whose unit in Afghanistan was one of the first to work with special teams of female soldiers tasked with reaching out to Afghan women.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

It was an announcement that made history.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: If they can do the job, if they can meet the standards...

MARTIN: Something that will change the U.S. military in a fundamental way.

PANETTA: If they can meet, you know, the qualifications that are involved here, there is no reason why they shouldn't have a chance.

MARTIN: Women can now officially serve in combat. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the announcement last week.

PANETTA: That's just a fundamental belief of mine and I think it's a fundamental belief of the American people.

MARTIN: Military and civilian leaders have been thinking about this for a long time. And it wasn't an easy decision. A couple years ago, a Pentagon commission took a hard look at the combat exclusion policy. There was a lot of heated debate. Here's an exchange between retired Marine Lieutenant General Frank Peterson and Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs flying a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL FRANK PETERSON: Here's my problem. We're talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you would volunteer to live like that?

LIEUTENANT COLONEL TAMMY DUCKWORTH: I've lived like that. I've lived out there with the guys and I would do it. It's about the job.

MARTIN: In the end, the commission recommended that the Pentagon do away with the combat ban on women. But this wasn't as much a revolution as it was an evolution; a thinking about whether women belong in combat. After all, women have been fighting and dying in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; wars with no front lines in which female troops find themselves in combat situations no matter what the policy said.

Again, Secretary Panetta.

PANETTA: The steps we are announcing today are significant. And in many ways they are an affirmation of where we have been having, as a department for more than 10 years.

MARTIN: And the change is welcome news for some.

MAJOR GENERAL HEIDI BROWN: My name is Major General Heidi Brown. I'm based out of Huntsville, Alabama, Redstone Arsenal, and I am serving with the Missile Defense Agency.

MARTIN: During the war in Iraq, General Heidi Brown commanded the combat arms brigade. I first interviewed General Brown a couple of years ago, about how the Combat Exclusion Policy made it hard for women to move up the ranks. I spoke with her again just after the announcement.

BROWN: I didn't know that that announcement was going to come out with it did. And when it did come, I thought this is wonderful. It really is.

MARTIN: That you are seeing that change happening even before this announcement was made, you're seeing the groundwork.

BROWN: Yeah. Quite honestly, I think I have - not I think - I have seen a lot of changes over the last couple of years. And of course now, with the lift of the ban, anything is possible.

MARTIN: We'll hear more from General Brown about why she thinks the military is on its way to becoming gender-neutral.

But first, someone who has already served alongside women in combat; his name is Greg Jackson and he was a medic with the Army Special Forces. Jackson served in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2011. His unit was one of the first to work with special teams of female soldiers who were trained specifically to reach out to Afghan women.

GREG JACKSON: I think you have to understand the culture of Special Forces. I mean, even a fully-tabbed Green Beret that shows up, as a brand-new guy at a team, is not going to have the best time for the first couple months. You know, you have to prove yourself and show your mettle. And so, I think that there is a very analogous situation when the female engagement team showed up.

There's always a kind of dog sniffing around each other until you find out what the other one is made of. And once that threshold is reached it's like dealing with anybody else on the team. I don't think the idea that there were women was as much of an issue, as much as the idea of if they can go out and hack it, then I'm totally fine with them being there.

MARTIN: So what do you think than about the Pentagon's decision to roll back the combat exclusion policy?

JACKSON: On a personal level, I think it's the military coming down on the right side of history. I think the arguments that I tend to hear the most just don't carry a whole lot weight. I hear a lot about women affecting unit cohesion. And I have a history degree, so I think I heard a lot of those same types of concerns when they were talking about integrating African-Americans into combat units.

One of the other things I hear is the idea of if the woman is wounded, men will expose themselves unnecessarily because of some type of heightened emotional bond you may have with seeing a woman hurt. And I'm not sure what unit they came from but it couldn't have been a combat unit. Because every unit that I know there's not a whole lot you wouldn't do for the guys next to you.

I know there certainly wasn't anybody on my team that I wasn't prepared to die for and I know that they would die for me. And it's not something that you think or it's not your opinion - it's something you know.

MARTIN: What about the suggestion that having women in these units, there's very little privacy? Also, you put men and women together and there can be sexual, romantic distractions that will jeopardize the mission.

JACKSON: What I think about that is that it's minimizes the professionalism and intelligence that the individual soldier is capable of displaying. And you have 19-year-olds making life-and-death decisions regular. I think you can depend on a 19-year-old to decide whether or not it's appropriate to engage in that type of behavior and/or focus on the mission instead. And I think most times, when you get to these combat units, people are focused on the mission. You know, I've been shot at a number of times. And I can to tell you how many times I was actually thinking about hanky-panky and that would be zero.

MARTIN: Greg Jackson, he's a former medic and staff sergeant with the Army Special Forces. He served in Southern Afghanistan.

Mr. Jackson, thanks so much for talking with us.

JACKSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: There is support among troops for the decision to lift the ban, at least publicly. But when I first talked with General Heidi Brown, she wasn't so sure.

When we spoke a couple of years ago - while you said that there had been limitations, that the ban had affected you personally - you said, though, that you didn't necessarily think all the combat arms positions should be open to women. Let's take a listen to this clip.

BROWN: I'm not necessarily an advocate for opening up infantry and armor, which are really the two branches that exclude women because of the direct combat role that they have.

MARTIN: So that's what you told me a couple of years ago. Has your thinking changed since then?

BROWN: Well, with...

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: With the news, for me, it's there are so many possibilities now. And so, I guess, the short answer to your question is I think I have changed my view on that.

MARTIN: What were some of your hesitations, though, in advocating for opening up all the combat arms?

BROWN: Back then, I just thought those were the two branches we'd never open. I guess I just felt that and believed that we just wouldn't. I think that those particular branches, I guess, there's a sense of physical toughness. I mean, you look at one of the pictures that just sticks in my mind, there's a soldier in Afghanistan who was carrying this huge pack - all his equipment, weighted down - and I think about myself.

I mean I can't even imagine doing that with a pack that probably outweighs me and to be able to have the physical stamina. Now, I would tell you I am confident that there are men and women alike who can do that. And I am also confident that there are men and women alike who cannot do that.

So I think that, you know, when I look back two years ago, I just never thought that those two specialties - I never thought the announcement would say every specialty across the service - never in my wildest imagination.

MARTIN: What about the issue of standards? You say that if a woman can carry the weight and do the work, then she should be allowed to have whatever job she wants in the military. Critics of the decision have said that's fine, as long as the standards don't change, as long as you don't lower the bar.

But at the press conference last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey suggested that those standards could change. Let's take a listen to what he said.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high? With the direct combat exclusion provision in place, we never had to have that conversation.

MARTIN: So what do you think about this? Should the standards change to allow women in to some of these more elite units we're talking about?

BROWN: Well, I think he also talked about gender-neutral standards. So - but you've got to ask yourself: Why is the standard so high? Is it based on historical data? Is it looking ahead in a different combat environment? It's going to make the services look at the standards that they have and ask themselves the questions that perhaps we just haven't had to ask for many, many years.

So, do I think standards are going to change? Yes. Do I think they're going to be lower standards? No, I think they're just going to be different, really, across the board different.

MARTIN: Do you foresee that being controversial in any way, that people might point to that and say, we knew this was a slippery slope; you're changing the standards. That means this has become some form of affirmative action, to get a certain number of women into these combat arms positions.

BROWN: I don't think it's - I certainly don't agree with the affirmative action comment that anyone would make. What I would say is I'm just kind of smiling because in 1976, when women were afforded the opportunity to enter the military academies for the first time, there was so much speculation that, oh, the academies are going to go downhill. The quality of the officers, it's going to suffer. And I think...

MARTIN: We should point out, you were one of the first classes to graduate from West Point that included women?

BROWN: Right, I was in the second class.

You know, there are going to be the naysayers and the critics that say we've changed the professionalism or the standards in military. And I would just say, you know what? We've had men and women fighting alongside one another for years and years. Have we taken a hard look at five years ago? Was there a degradation? I don't think so. You know, I would just tell folks: Shut up and color.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Shut up and color?

BROWN: Yeah, it's Army-talk. 'Cause that's - you just want somebody to just, you know, get on with it. Just move ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That was Army Major General Heidi Brown. The Pentagon has directed all branches of military service to access the new policy change and submit a plan to implement it by May 15th.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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