Women in combat roles: Is it possible?

Panetta dropped a hand grenade on US military culture with a unilateral decision to open combat occupational specialties to women.  Photo: None

WASHINGTON, DC, January 25, 2013 - Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s new policy fundamentally changes 200 years of tradition and will likely be difficult to implement.  However, it has been done before.

While the SECDEF’s Women in Combat MOS (Military Occupational Specialties) policy is highly controversial and untimely, it is not a new concept. 

Since 1998 women have been serving with distinction in “combat” MOS jobs in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The IDF changed their makeup in a measured and deliberate way. 

In 1996, Alice Miller opened the door for females in IDF combat roles after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled she could test for pilot’s school.  Although Miller was medically eliminated from consideration, her actions paved the way for others.  In 2001, the first female graduated flight school for the IDF and went on to serve as a combat navigator.  In 2000, the IDF formed the coed light infantry Caracal Battalion, which is mostly comprised of women officers, sergeants, and soldiers.  The Caracal Battalion serves as a land defense force along the Jordanian and Egyptian borders.  In 2012 the unit engaged and thwarted terrorists from infiltrating into Israel from Egypt.  To note, during the firefight a female soldier killed a suicide bomber, which prevented further bloodshed.  Additionally, the IDF has an all female sniper instructor cadre that teaches IDF Special Forces soldiers. 

While Israel’s model may not be appropriate for the US, a measured time-phased approach to integrating women into combat roles will better serve the military.

As a combat veteran, I have served with female soldiers and civilians that shared some of the same burdens as men.  Specifically in 2004, my unit was situated near a Civil Affairs unit that included several females.  While their unit was not intended to close with and engage the enemy, they patrolled the same streets in Iraq as every other unit.  Also, the .50 caliber gunner was a female soldier who proved her mettle on several occasions.  

In Iraq and Afghanistan female soldiers, both officer and enlisted, have served with distinction and demonstrated valor and dependency in combat.  For instance in Iraq, according to the US Army, “Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester of the 617th Military Police Company, a National Guard unit out of Richmond, Ky., received the Silver Star, along with two other members of her unit, for their actions during an enemy ambush on their convoy.”  Hester was the second female to earn the Silver Star since WW II.

Based on recent performance, I think women will potentially serve well in combat roles, but do they really want to? 

These combat roles will not be well served with cookie-cutter solutions.  As a former Green Beret, I understand the need for selective identification of those suitable for service in Special Forces and advanced positions. When I went to Special Forces Selection and Assessment (SFAS) in 1993, over 50% of the candidates did not complete the training.  Most failed the physical standards, some were injured, and some did not have the temperment for SF duty. 

Finding suitable candidates for SF duty — whether male or female — is highly difficult as the combination of the high physical standards, the mental fortitude, and willingness to endure hardships is rare. 

In the Army, physical standards for women are already lower than standards for men.   However, I have witnessed women meet and exceed the men’s standards. 

Being on an SF team requires more than the Army physical standards dictate.  For instance, SF teams must carry 100 lb.+ rucksacks for several days deep into enemy territory without complaining.

This does not mean women cannot meet the physical and academic standards to pass SFAS and the SF Qualification Course, but many women culturally may not be prepared for some of the more austere and intimate conditions. 

For instance, one of SF’s major missions is to conduct Strategic Reconnaissance (SR).  In SR, SF teams move tactically on foot over rough terrain with extremely heavy equipment, dig a clandestine hide sight/dirt hole, and live in that hole for several days.  In the hide site, close quarters is an understatement.  On more than one occasion I held a zip lock bag for my teammate as he defecated into it because we could not leave the hide site until the mission was complete.

I am not suggesting females would not be able to perform this bizarre but important task during SR missions, but I do not know whether they would want to.

If the counter-argument is that women will only perform limited missions, then they are not fully contributing or fully performing. 

I am sure there are plenty of women who want to be on an SF team, but I do not know if there is a large crop of physically, mentally, and morally fit women that actually want to do what is required to be on an SF team. 

Ultimately this culture change should be paced to ensure the military, not an agenda, is served first.  


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Timothy Zlatich


Tim Zlatich is a retired US Army Special Forces and Intelligence officer
with a keen eye for political-military issues related to National Security. Tim served
with distinction around the world and on several combat tours as a Green Beret and
intelligence specialist supporting National interests. Tim grew up in Adams Morgan,
DC and traveled the world as a soldier, yet remained an avid, some would say rabid,
Redskins fan. Traveling honed his world-view and broadened his interests. Tim
now works in the DC area where he applies his background, skillset, and experience
in the private sector. When he’s not problem-solving, he spends time with his wife
at home, honing his daughter’s softball skills, and spoiling his French Bulldog, Angus.

Contact Timothy Zlatich


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