It’s now widely reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will announce today that he is lifting the Pentagon’s ban on women being assigned to combat units. A briefing will be held with the media this afternoon, with Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, taking questions from the press.
Make no mistake, women have served in combat for years. They’ve earned valor awards, led convoys through hostile countryside and given their lives at times in service to our nation.
Still, there’s a variety of questions that must be addressed as the Pentagon and the individual branches of service formulate plans to address the ban being lifted. Here are five worth addressing:
1. How will the individual services comply?
The Pentagon may be lifting this ban, but there are serious questions that service members will have about how the change will be implemented. Will women be allowed in the infantry, for example? If so, when? What standards will they have to meet in order to qualify?
2. How will cultural issues be addressed?
Word of the decision last night was met nearly immediately by an outcry by many male combat veterans. Life with the grunts isn’t easy, as even this humble war correspondent can attest firsthand.
At times, living in a war zone means defecating without privacy, bathing out in the open and huddling with others for heat, especially in maneuver units. Those details aren’t optional — they’re a fact of life, especially on small combat outposts and patrol bases that aren’t well established.
Simply put, it won’t always be possible to have separate facilities for women. How will the services develop policy to address that, and how will it play out practically during the next war?
3. What’s it mean for Selective Service?
The Selective Service System requires all male citizens and legal aliens living in the U.S. to register between the ages of 18 and 25. Women are exempt. If the ban on women in combat is lifted and all citizens must be treated equal, does that mean women should be required to register in case a military draft is needed in a future crisis?
A major legal decision would appear to be required, and it has the U.S. Supreme Court’s name written all over it.
4. How will the military handle cohabitation in combat?
During previous embeds in Afghanistan, I’ve watched as Marines in Female Engagement Teams complied with a different set of rules than the male grunts they served alongside.
Check back on this 2011 cover story I wrote on the issue. Cpl. Michele Greco-Lucchina, a female Marine I met in dangerous section of Marjah district in 2010, said at the time that it could get “very, very messy” to deploy men and women together in infantry units.
“In any work environment, you’re going to have sex tension, especially when you’re deployed and nothing can go on,” she said. “When we were out there, we had to find ways around it because the infantry battalions were not ready for us. We used what they used. If they showered, we weren’t around, and if we showered, they weren’t around.
“But that can cause many problems on a lot of levels, and I know the battalion commanders and company commanders and senior enlisted, that was, I think, their main concern: ‘How is this going to affect our male Marines?'”
One policy in place at the time called for FET Marines to not stay on any one outpost for longer than 30 days to alleviate some co-location concerns, Greco-Lucchina said. That worked for a unit complementing the infantry, but it’s not an option if women are in the infantry itself.
5. How will a culture of fairness be adopted?
Without a doubt, there are women who are strong enough, fast enough and tough enough to handle frontlines combat. Hopefully, we can all agree on that.
Where it gets complicated is determining what it takes to make sure anyone serving in a unit in danger can handle the physical exertion they’ll face. As pointed out here, the Corps has been experimenting with establishing “common physical performance standards.” What’s that mean now that the ban on women in combat units has been lifted?