American Women Are Signing Up for Combat in Unexpected Numbers
Women have qualified for combat jobs at double the rate U.S. Army officials expected, but their future is uncertain
by KEVIN KNODELL
“I have to admit that there was a time when I was on the other side of the argument,” Rachel Washburn said. “I thought, like maybe full integration isn’t what’s best.”
In college, she was a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader before she commissioned as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. She’s hardly the traditional archetype of an American warfighter.
However, when the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command launched a program to attach women to special operations units as members of “cultural support teams” to help with intelligence gathering, Washburn felt called to at least try.
“Even though I wanted to go in and I wanted to be close to combat, and I was obviously felt called to do something like the cultural support mission — or maybe if things had been different I would have branched infantry—[but with] the politics of integration, I was kind of hesitant about what does integration really look like?” she explained.
“[Then] I got on a team and saw how much value added there is to harnessing all sorts of talent regardless of gender.”
During Washburn’s first deployment as a junior officer, she was attached to a small U.S. Army Special Forces team doing when the Pentagon called “village stability operations.” She lived in a small mud compound and helped gather intelligence and track insurgents.
Along the way she got in firefights with the Taliban and navigated Afghanistan’s rugged landscape. Sometimes she would be accompanied by just one fellow soldier or an Afghan interpreter. It was a high risk, high stress assignment — and it transformed her view of herself and what she could do.
“All those stereotypical arguments people have against integration, I saw them first hand debunked,” Washburn said.
“You have the hygiene concerns, you have men wanting to defend women, you have women falling out of very long movements, women not reacting properly to a firefight — I saw all of those things not manifest in the way people are worried about, and it just made me incredibly passionate for the need for women to have the ability to pursue any job they want to in the military.”
Washburn is a member of a unique generation of women in the U.S. military’s history. In 2016, the Pentagon officially opened all military jobs to female applicants as part of an initiative laid out by the Obama administration.
The shift followed the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy enacted under the Clinton administration. Those rules banned openly gay troops from joining or serving in the military. A separate rule — since repealed by Congress — criminalized consensual same-sex conduct within the military.
The integration process is already well underway. In December 2016, the Army reported that a higher number of women than expected had been joining and qualifying for ground combat jobs as both new recruits and transfers — double the number senior leaders had predicted. Many have already reported for duty at their units.
“The female attrition rate is lower or the same as men,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Hugh Van Roosen said. “These are women who are physically fit and absolutely prepared for this.”
In January 2017, the U.S. Marine Corps reported the first batch of female infantry Marines were arriving at their units at Camp Lejune, North Carolina, all of which had to meet the Corp’s new, tougher standards for combat units. Even though women are joining and succeeding at a higher rate than many military leaders predicted, it will still take time before full integration.
“Relatively small cohorts of female and male officers are currently being trained together and assigned to the same company as a way of gradually adjusting the culture in male-dominated units before female enlisted soldiers begin to graduate this summer,” an Army news release stated.
The prospect of full integration of women into ground combat jobs has evoked heated debate between those who argue it’s about equal opportunity and broadening the talent pool and those who argue it will threaten military readiness.
Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory cast some doubt on the potential future of a fully gender integrated force. Trump — a military high school graduate who got five draft deferments and once boasted that avoiding sexually transmitted infections was his “personal Vietnam” — suggested during the campaign that he might move to reinstate the military’s policy of combat exclusion.
As proponents of a gender integrated force prepare for a potential battle, a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the U.S. government brought by several female veterans challenging the policy of combat exclusion could find new relevance.
Despite the Obama administration’s move to integrate women, the ACLU never dropped the suit.
“Both the Combat Exclusion Policy and the order repealing it are at the discretion of the Department of Defense,” Colleen Farrell, a Marine who was among the women party to the suit, explained. “The new administration’s Secretary of Defense could re-impose the ban on women in combat.”
“Additionally, a Republican congress could legislate a ban,” she continued. “Until women are fully integrated in every service, our lawsuit will remain relevant.”
However, whether in official combat jobs or not, women have already been fighting for years.
Despite the official ban on women in ground combat units that was in place for most of the post-9/11 era, women were regularly in the line of fire in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is a military maxim — the enemy always gets a vote. The chaotic nature of counterinsurgency warfare doesn’t allow for cleanly delineated boundaries between “combat” and “non-combat.” There was — and is — always the potential for a fight.
In March 2005, a group of around 50 Iraqi insurgents ambushed a U.S. military convoy. Members of the Army’s 617th Military Police Company fought back.
One of the soldiers in the unit was then-23-year-old Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester. For her actions, which included killing three enemy insurgents, Hester received a Silver Star, the third highest award a soldier can receive for valor in combat.
In Iraq, American commanders regularly sent military police units — not technically combat units — on patrols and to advise and train local police. These jobs took the military cops “outside the wire” and into harm’s way. Some soldiers called them the “co-ed infantry.”
“It was that one job where you can get out there and get dirty and be in an infantry-type environment,” Hester later told The Tennessean. “I guess it was one of the more exciting jobs in the military for women when I enlisted and it still is now.”
But it was far from the only job that took women into battle.
Women took part in convoy operations down bomb infested roads, diffused bombs as members of explosive ordinance disposal teams, worked with local officials as members of civil affairs teams and went out into insurgent territory as human intelligence gatherers.
Each job was potentially fatal.
“I really found that the formative years for me were when I was a captain,” said Kate Germano, a Marine veteran who’s now the chief operating officer of the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group for women serving in uniform.
Germano is a combat veteran who served in Iraq and deployed on several emergency humanitarian operations during her time with the Marines.
“I would say that the Marine Corps is very, very good at putting differences aside when it needs to most and that’s what I take away,” Germano said. “My best memories are those types of bonding experiences with my peers.”
She said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fundamentally changed many of the discussions about the role of women in war.
“Women were operating in every MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] except for the ground combat jobs for the past 16 years, proving themselves more so than in any other combat environment in our history,” Germano explained. “It made it more difficult to defend women not being in combat.”
The questions for military professionals became less about whether women could endure combat. The conversation turned to how the military should deploy female troops in combat, and whether that meant incorporating women into traditionally male dominated fighting units.
For instance, the U.S. military had long included women on missions to help build trust among local populations, or if needed, to search local women for weapons or contraband. Over time, military leaders began creating specially trained teams of women that received extra combat training and were attached directly to combat units.
Cultural norms concerning relations between men and women are a complex matter in the Middle East and South Asia — where many of America’s recent wars have been fought. The Free Syrian Army at one time had more female combat leaders than the U.S. military. War Is Boring documented Kurdish women in combat in Iraq.
But many regions are much more conservative than others, and violating local norms can cause long lasting problems. For instance, a man putting his hands on a woman to search for weapons could be seen as an obscene violation.
Farrell, who followed her sister into the Marine Corps, originally trained as an air support control officer, akin to a military air traffic controller, but ultimately spent little time in the job. When she learned that newly formed Female Engagement Teams needed recruits for duty in Afghanistan, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I have always been an athlete and interested in the military,” Farrell explained. “I chose the Marine Corps because of the history and traditions, the discipline and physicality, and the esprit de corps.”
“As soon as I got to the fleet, I volunteered for the Female Engagement Team and spent a majority of the next three years training and deploying with the team,” she added. “All Marines want to fight at the tip of the spear, and the Female Engagement Team allowed me to do that.”
As part of these units, increasing numbers of women went on missions carrying the same equipment as men, sometimes for days at a time. Not all of the men were immediately on board with the idea.
When Washburn went to Afghanistan in a cultural support unit attached to an Army Special Forces team, she observed growing pains as the team’s male soldiers adjusted.
“We were the first females they’d ever worked with,” she said. “Frankly they weren’t sure how best to utilize us … we kind of had to win their hearts and minds first.”
Her other female teammate was an enlisted soldier who had already completed three previous deployments. That woman went on to become a warrant officer and pilot.
The two soldiers gained the Special Forces team leader’s respect fairly early on after their first combat engagement.
“Combat is the great equalizer,” Washburn said.
She didn’t know how her past as a football cheerleader would play out with the team. Ultimately, when it finally did, she recalled it as an epic non-event.
“It lost its novelty very quickly,” Washburn said. “It was kind of ‘how long do we keep her from knowing that we know,’ and then once it was brought up it was a non-issue because I hadn’t showered in months — and that appeal goes away real quick.”
“When our time comes up to burn the poop, and fill sandbags and set up fighting positions that’s the last thing that’s on the ODA’s mind,” Washburn explained, using the acronym for Operational Detachment Alpha, the official term for a Special Forces A-Team. “Gender is a non-issue at that point, you all have a job to do and everyone needs to pull your weight.”
“It’s not about whether you’re a boy or a girl pulling your weight, it’s about whether you’re a soldier contributing to this small family that needs everyone to contribute.”
However, her gender wasn’t irrelevant.
Not only was Washburn and her teammate able to interact with Afghan women and children in a way male American troops simply couldn’t, those Afghans invited her into their homes. In turn, she was able to gain audiences and have conversations with men that the Green Berets never could.
Washburn said that Afghans often regarded the American women as “third gender.” Afghan men certainly saw them as women, but not in the way they saw their wives and sisters. American women were an entity all their own.
“We had a lot more freedom of movement and that’s not considered weird,” Washburn explained. “The way I was treated by Afghan police, Afghan army, even Afghan leaders in the village was about as close to a peer as the ODA I supported.”
“They respected the job we had to do, they always engaged us in dialogue. It was surprising, there was a lot of equity in the relationship we had with Afghan men frankly.”
It was a transformative experience for Washburn. She said it made her rethink what women can and should be able to do. “I think any person should have the opportunity to serve in the capacity they feel called to.”
High risk jobs often attract very particular personalities — and they’re typically male. For some testosterone fueled young men wanting to prove their manhood, the draw of war and the adrenaline rush of combat is alluring.
But it also attracts a certain kind of woman, albeit perhaps in smaller numbers, who also want to challenge themselves. When the Navy laid out its plan for the integration of women into the elite SEALs, it drew upon lessons learned from bringing women into the service’s explosive ordnance disposal and diver communities.
The Navy noted that female bomb disposal officers made up just 2.5 percent of the service’s total explosive ordnance disposal officer population and enlisted female personnel make up just 0.9 percent of their community. Only 0.6 percent of Navy divers were women.
Officials warned that interest in SEAL selection could be similarly low, and of the handful of volunteers most were likely to fail — just as the majority of men who try don’t succeed, either. As a result, Navy officials warned against imposing quotas and argued instead for a “gender blind” approach to applicants.
Few women objected to this approach.
However, a study by the RAND Corporation gauging how members of the special operations community felt about allowing women to apply for their jobs found deep resistance. More than 80 percent of respondents said they were opposed to having women on their teams. Some went as far as to say they stood by that position even if a woman could do the job.
“It’s a slap in the face telling us that chicks can do our job,” one Army Ranger responded to the survey. “It’s not the physical aspect that bothers me. My issues are morale and retention.”
“This wouldn’t be special to anyone anymore.”
One Green Beret was even more blunt. “We [men] like to kill things and bang women,” he wrote. “It doesn’t matter if she’s qualified.”
However, many researchers noted that participation in the study was voluntary. The people who took the time fill it out were most likely to be those with the strongest opinions.
On top of that, even some of those respondents opposed to women as operators reported that they believed cultural support teams had been extremely effective and expressed that they’d be open to expanding several — but not all — roles for women.
Outside the study, other members of the special operations community vocally stated an openness to opening all roles to women who have the desire and can meet qualifications.
“Look bro, I get it, I saw Little Rascals, when you let girls in the clubhouse they ruin everything,” Leo Jenkins, an Army Ranger and author, wrote at the blog Havok Journal. “They bring their pink shit over and you’re not allowed to fart or scratch your balls anymore.”
“Here’s the deal with that flick — it was about children.”
“Women are not inferior to men. They aren’t,” Jenkins continued. “They have a slightly different set of strengths that offset our equal yet different set of strengths.”
“If a woman has the patriotism to enlist and serve in the military, the desire and ability to serve in special operations and the capability to enter and stay in that world then there shouldn’t even be a discussion about it.”
This very public and emotional debate has put added scrutiny on the women who are already serving in the U.S. military, regardless of role.
“Being in the Marines and being in the military gave me more than I could ever give back, even though I strive to try every day,” Germano said. “I don’t judge my 20 years in the Marine Corps by my last two.”
However, those final years are the ones that came to define Kate Germano in the public eye. In 2014, she took on an assignment as a training officer at Parris Island, South Carolina, having previously served as an aide to the Secretary of the Navy and as commander of Recruiting Station San Diego.
In 2015, brass relieved her of command for creating a “toxic” environment for female recruits in what became a very public scandal. However, many of her defenders, including several Marines who served under her at Parris Island, have said that she was doing her job — training Marines.
Germano said she originally joined the Marine Corps because it had a reputation for having the highest standards. She wanted the ultimate challenge.
“It is a total letdown when you join and you figure out within six months that the standards really aren’t that high for women and even when they are high no one’s holding them to that,” Germano said.
When she arrived at Parris Island, her superiors told her that female recruits had “historically lower” scores in both fitness and marksmanship and they didn’t expect that to change. Germano pushed instructors under her command to take a “tough love” approach.
She acknowledges that her methods could be harsh, but insisted her approach was no tougher than many of her male counterparts. Under her leadership, women’s scores in both fitness and marksmanship improved.
However, her superiors accused her of pushing young women too hard — to the point of abuse. Germano asserts that the Marine Corps, and the military at large, has a problem with coddling women.
She says that it’s a deeply rooted cultural problem that limits women and reinforces attitudes that women are weaker. She asserts that it’s part of a cycle that can also fuel mutual resentment between male and female service members.
“If I have benevolent sexism tendencies and I’m a man that believes women should be protected above all else … if I coddle women and I believe I have to protect them above all else, I’m inherently making women weaker because of that belief,” she explained. “One begets the other and that’s the danger of that line of thinking, and that’s exactly what I saw at Parris Island.”
Germano argues that the Marine Corps’s combat integration study — which reported that gender integrated teams performed generally worse than all-male teams — is another vivid illustration of these tendencies. She said that when the Corps picked women for the study, most of them met only the minimum physical standards and had little formal combat training before they were thrown into infantry units.
“That automatically sets them up at a disadvantage,” Germano said. “If we’d had higher standards for women from the beginning they would have probably had much different results.”
Even so, researchers acknowledged that while none of the top physical performers were women, a select few did outperform some male Marines — who were considered to be qualified infantrymen — in fitness and marksmanship skills.
However, several integration skeptics argued that high performing women were “outliers” and weren’t representative of the “average female Marine.”
Much of the study is shrouded in mystery and researchers and evaluators that actually worked on the study allegedly clashed with Marine Corps brass about interpreting the results. Those involved reportedly debated about the sample size and how well the study actually reflected the broader Marine population.
“The Marine Corps’ conclusions ran counter to what the analysts and the researchers at [the Center for Naval Analysis] had recommended for that study,” Germano said. “They used that data anyway to support their conclusion that women were not capable of meeting the standards.”
A summary the Marine Corps released noted that all-male units performed better in 93 tasks. However, it also stated mixed-gender teams performed equally well with all-male teams on 39 tasks — and better in two.
What those tasks are, specifically, is unknown. The overview didn’t specify the work, and the Marine Corps has never released the full 978 page report for peer review. However, some information has trickled out. Germano asserted that researchers apparently “identified that mixed teams had better decision making outcomes.”
Similar issues dogged the Army’s integration of women into combat units. In 2015, U.S. Army Capt. Kristen Griest, Lt. Shaye Haver and Maj. Lisa Jaster became the first women to graduate from Ranger School.
In a student panel attended by members of the media, Griest and Haver’s male classmates asserted that their instructors held them all to one standard — the Ranger standard. According to students and instructors, the women proved equally capable of marching long distances, carrying machine guns and climbing mountains alongside men.
However, not long after the gathering, journalist Susan Keating wrote a feature for People magazine relying on anonymous sources. The article alleged that officers had rigged the course in the women’s favor.
Multiple Ranger School instructors and many of the women’s male classmates publicly came to their defense. The Army’s chief public affairs officer Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost — himself a Ranger qualified infantry combat veteran — personally responded to Keating’s article on the service’s official Facebook page, calling it “fiction.”
Oklahoma Rep. Steve Russell — another Army Ranger veteran — sent a letter to the Army demanding the scores of all the women for him to personally review. His insistence that women couldn’t possibly have passed led some veterans to dub him the first “Ranger Truther.”
Since their graduation, Griest, Haver and Jaster have faced continued accusations that they simply could not have passed. Some skeptics point to the fact that no female Marines have managed to successfully pass their service’s infantry officer course as evidence of a conspiracy.
“The culture is based on male heroes,” Germano said. “Women have been in the Marine corps for decades, but we’ve never been embraced by everyone equally.”
“I think the problem is when you can see women who can succeed and meet the standard, it causes some of the men in those fields to potentially think that perhaps they’re at risk of losing that vaunted title of being a Marine and everything that comes with it.”
“Keep in mind this is about the standards and who can make them, not about what body parts they have,” Germano added.
She said that despite the popular image of combat troops as having large and bulky builds, many males in these fields have a variety of different body types — some of them skinny, short and/or small framed — that also meet standards.
Many officials and pundits have insisted that if women are allowed into combat fields then the girls will force the boys to lower standards to accommodate them. Washburn argued that the women who have the initiative and drive to join combat units do not want special treatment, and would regard it as an insult.
“To undermine the foundation of the entire organization would do not only the organization a disservice, but to those women or individuals who are trying to do something groundbreaking,” Washburn said. “No woman who wants to be the first at something wants to do it in a way that was less difficult.”
“Lowering standards is an argument that is made consistently even though women themselves are saying they want to be held to high standards,” Germano said. “No one is arguing for lower standards.”
“I think it’s easy when you can’t back anything up with science it’s really easy to use emotional arguments that women are going to destroy the cohesion and lower standards,” Germano added. “But those are emotional arguments and they’re not based on facts, and we should be talking about that too.”
Washburn and her husband recently returned from a vacation to Europe during which she visited her husband’s cousin, a member of the Irish Army’s Special Forces. To date no Irish woman has ever successfully joined — but there’s also no rule in Ireland stopping women from trying.
“It’s just not a thing there. It’s either you meet the criteria or you don’t and you don’t get the job,” Washburn noted. “And I just think that [in the United States] we’re contributing to a culture that wants to limit women’s ability to pursue things.”
Many opponents of military gender integration have called it an attempt at “social engineering” that disrupts natural gender norms. But Washburn disagrees, saying that imposing restrictions on who can apply for jobs is what truly derails a meritocracy.
“You’re telling society that women aren’t capable of certain of things, which is mass social engineering if you ask me.”
James “Chaos” Mattis, the retired Marine general the incoming Trump administration has tapped as secretary of defense, will likely hold sway over the future of women in combat units. He’s widely respected by troops, diplomats, journalists and lawmakers alike.
In the past, Mattis has expressed misgivings about the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and voiced skepticism of allowing women into combat roles. While he’s said the latter may come from “laudable” instincts, he voiced doubts about whether it’s prudent for women to join combat units.
“He is a proven performer in combat, and he’s known throughout the world for being a scholar and a warrior,” said Germano who, like many Marines, admires Mattis as a leader. Nevertheless, she voiced apprehension about the future of military women under the Trump administration — and what role Mattis may play based on his prior positions.
“The bottom line is this process is in motion … the women who are involved are making a go and being successful, and they’re adding capability to the military,” Germano said. “So to say less than a year or a year down the road that we’re going to make a decision based on fact when we haven’t been able to observe or gather the facts on how this is affecting the military I think is a premature decision.”
She expressed hope women will get the opportunity to prove themselves and that the military will gather hard data and observations from the field about how women perform in the real world.
“What we need most is something tangible,” Germano said.
She points to studies of the corporate world that show that companies with more diverse leadership tend to be more creative, less susceptible to group-think and take better calculated risks than companies that are more homogeneous.
“Unfortunately we don’t have anything like that in the military to show what happens when you add diversity of thought and diversity of leadership to the table.”
However, Mattis’ views appeared to have evolved given recent statements during his Jan. 12, 2017 congressional hearing. “I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military,” he told lawmakers, adding that he believed “when people meet the standards that’s the end of discussion.”
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also pressed Mattis on the future of gay troops in the services. “Frankly, senator, I’ve never cared about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” he replied.
“We were pleased to hear Mattis say that he does not intend to arbitrarily reinstate the ban on women in ground combat,” Germano told War Is Boring in an email shortly after the hearing.
“This is an important development for our national security, and we applaud Mattis for his appreciation of the evolving role of women in the military as the reason for his own evolution in thinking on the issue.”
However, the controversy isn’t likely to end soon. Emotions remain high on both sides. And even if Mattis doesn’t intend to reinstate any bans, several lawmakers and pundits remain passionate about the issue. The ACLU’s lawsuit remains open.
“When we filed the lawsuit, I felt that many of my male peers did not understand why I was participating in the case and were not supportive,” Farrell said. “I do think that since filing attitudes have changed for the better.”
Washburn has stayed in touch with several members of the Special Forces team she deployed with — particularly her team leader.
She said that as the only other officer on the team, he treated her as a peer and acted as a mentor throughout their deployment and beyond. She said that serving alongside Green Berets was an honor that changed her life for the better.
She also observed that, in her personal experience, the current crop of young men and women in the U.S. military have worked well together and without too much drama.
“I hope we don’t take any steps back, I think the Army is going to be better for utilizing all of its talent,” Washburn added. “I think it’s the leadership that’s making it a thing. I don’t think it needs to be as hard as we’re making it.
“I did it, and I think that can be reproduced on a larger scale.”