Last Friday, in the wake of the two-week-old announcement overturning the Combat Exclusion Policy, I attended a panel event about the removal of the CEP and its implications for the services. Having seen the damage that the CEP could—and did—do, I wrote about it both for a blog post and as a news article. The policy’s removal was both anticlimactic and embarrassingly necessary. It’s embarrassing that it took us this long—in a force that hinges on the high expectations and ambitions of hard-working people—to dispose of this policy. Despite an entire system set up to evaluate individuals on merit, the CEP codified the idea that ability mattered less than boy-or-girl.
But now that the CEP is—sort of—removed, what comes next? How do we as a military do this right, without overthinking things or treating people like children? The symposium was planned to address specific concerns about how the changes would impact the force, and to discuss past successes and failures both here and abroad. The main concerns included how to ensure that standards are set and remain high, how to avoid overthinking and micromanaging the process, possible impacts on unit cohesion, and more. It featured four different panels and 17 speakers. Most of the panel members were current or retired military; some are still on active duty and will deploy again shortly. Among the panelists were: Specialist Shoshana Johnson, USA (Ret); Major Mary Jennings Hegar, ANG; Sergeant Julia Bringloe, USA; Specialist Heidi Olson, USA; CAPT Joellen Oslund, USNR (Ret); Colonel Martha McSally, USAF (Ret); and Colonel Ingrid Gjerde, Norwegian Infantry.
Anyone interested in watching can view the videos here. The first and second panels were particularly interesting as they included testimony from American and foreign women who had experience in ground combat, among others.
Opponents of allowing women into ground combat roles have expressed concern that if units become co-ed, when under fire, men will forget their training and rush to help the women, risking mission and unit in the process. But panelist after panelist told otherwise. Major Hegar relayed how she and her crew crash-landed while on a mission in Afghanistan; while defending the crashed aircraft, they came under enemy fire. The crew fought back fiercely, as they had been trained to do. Her gender was not an issue. And why? Because they knew and trusted each other, had trained together and respected each other. Specialist Olson, Sergeant Bringloe, and Specialist Johnson emphasized the same points, echoing that the team is paramount, and that the vital piece was always the training: training as a unit allowed for development of the necessary rapport and respect, something that being “temporarily attached” does not provide.
Physical standards, specifically upper-body strength, have historically commanded the majority of the coverage in past discussions. But as most of the panelists pointed out, physical strength—especially upper-body strength—is only one part of the puzzle. Endurance, mental toughness, the ability to remain calm under fire—these cannot easily be taught yet are critically important, and none are gender-specific. I was sitting next to an infantry Marine in the audience, and on a break he mentioned that in Afghanistan, he’d seen a women break down while taking fire. Yet he’d also seen one of his own Marines fall apart and go into the fetal position, and he’d had to send others in after him, endangering them all. We often ignore the fact that while physical strength is one part of it, mental toughness is another. And mental toughness is not gender-specific.
But the physical aspect is undeniably part of it all. Greg Jacob, a prior infantry Marine, related how he had taken command of a company at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry and found himself working with women for the first time. Amazed that they couldn’t do pull-ups easily, he started them on a pull-up program, and soon everyone was knocking out pull-ups together; the problem was that the women had never trained for them, since the PFT only required the flexed-arm hang. We can develop strength in people, and we can develop endurance. But we have to train to the standards, and to do that we must set—and not lower—high standards.
And as to endurance and toughness, the panelists’ experiences highlighted how those qualities also come in both men and women. One audience member, a prior Marine infantryman, relayed the tale of a deployment he had to Okinawa years ago. He explained that his battalion had performed a number of long marches in full gear, and as they were struggling up the mountains in the Northern Training Area, they were accompanied by older Okinawan women. These women carried large baskets of water and other supplies on their heads and backs, and generally arrived at the destination in much better shape than the Marines did.
The physical standards were a recurring item for discussion throughout the day. Comments in the press by General Dempsey about developing a “critical mass” and having “enough women” are worrisome, and speak to a different path than what is needed to do this right. As I wrote about in the news piece for USNI, standards for each job must be defined, if specific ones are called for, and those should not shift to accommodate anyone. If this means only one or two women serve in each unit, or none, so be it. Some men may get cut as well if the standards are stricter than, for example, the current standard to become an infantry Marine. But every panelist repeatedly urged our leadership to set and adhere to high standards.
As to fears about unit cohesion, so much of it comes down to leadership, and to training to standards and expectations. Co-ed units have been deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade now, and they are strong and successful. Many of the panelists—and many in the audience—had deployed in co-ed units, and those units served ably and confidently. Leadership is paramount, just as it is for everything else we do. Expecting this to be any different is naïve.
Much more was said, but I’ll stop there to keep this from going on longer. At the end of the day, the main suggestions mirrored the panel discussions. Set high standards and stick to them. Expect high performance. Train to higher standards. Treat those serving as functioning adults rather than children who require constant hand-holding. Exercise leadership; as in any unit, the signs are there when trouble is ahead. And so many concerns can be overcome with a small amount of common sense and practicality.
As to the CEP, good riddance. It was a policy proven obsolete time and time again. It caused the “temporary attachment” of women to all-male infantry units that they had little integration or training with prior to deployment, weakening links that did eventually develop, and drove a wedge between those serving, labeling some as less qualified based solely on how they were born vs. actual capabilities. In effect, the CEP held that Justin Bieber is more qualified than Venus Williams to perform the duties of an 0311 (I paraphrased this from Colonel McSally, who used it repeatedly). We’re much better off acknowledging that this is not the case at all.