Women in war

3 myths about American women in combat

The author of “Ashley’s War” debunks common misconceptions about women in battle

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Andrew Hetherington/Combined Team Uruzgan Public Affairs

Despite increasing numbers of women fighting alongside men and dying in wars, myths persist about their role in combat. Here are three of the most common ones:

1. Before 2013 when then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat, women had never been in combat situations.

The ban on women in ground combat, codified by a 1994 memo from then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, did not mean that women did not go to war or see combat. It meant that women could not be assigned to units whose primary mission was ground combat.

This did not keep women out of the fight.

“I can’t tell you how many times our squad got blown up.” Those are the words to NPR of Silver Star recipient Lee Ann Hester, who was assigned to a military police unit in Iraq. “I mean, it’s more than I can count, probably. I mean, it was nothing for us to get shot at every other day or more.”

In 2008 Army Spc. Monica Lin Brown received a Silver Star for helping to save the lives of her fellow soldiers, running through gunfire and using her own body to shield members of her unit from incoming mortar rounds.

Women have served as combat pilots, medics, and doctors who have gone out on patrols alongside infantry platoons. And sometimes they have been recruited from their “day jobs” to go out into the field and interview or question women as part of patrols and special operations missions.

When Panetta lifted the ban on women in ground combat in 2013, he noted: “Every time I visited the warzone, every time I’ve met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I’ve been impressed with the fact that everyone—everyone, men and women alike—everyone is committed to doing the job. They’re fighting and they’re dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”

2. Men don’t want women there.

The men who have served alongside and shoulder-to-shoulder with women this past decade of war frequently seem far less fazed than the American public by the idea of roles opening to women.

Recently, I traveled to Ft. Benning in the lead-up to Army Ranger School admitting women. One of the instructors at the course preparing soldiers for Ranger training, a sergeant who had deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq, said he wasn’t surprised to see the leadership course opening to women and noted that “these two wars set it up for that.”

In the course of reporting Ashley’s War, I met some of the Rangers who trained the women who would go out on nighttime operations alongside some of the most elite and tested U.S. soldiers. I also spoke to some of the men who served alongside these women. Many of these soldiers had completed nine, 10, 11, 12 special operations deployments. Their focus a decade into the war was simply getting the job done. People who could keep up, perform, contribute to the mission, and help them achieve that night’s objective were welcome. Anyone who couldn’t was not. Some of these leaders would actually choose the female soldiers over their other “enablers” because they understood and appreciated the value these women brought to the battlefield. One of the trainers featured in Ashley’s War was at first skeptical about training women. But he finished his eight days training these female soldiers convinced that he had been part of history.

3. America is not ready to see its mothers, daughters and sisters lost to battle.

The tragic fact is that more than 160 women already have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While some have argued that America is not ready to lose women to war, the reality is we already have, with precious few Americans paying attention.

Those who have paid attention are not okay with women perishing in battle. Rather, they have met these losses with the same grief shared for men lost to war. After First Lt. Ashley White became the first member of her Cultural Support Team to be killed in action on a night raid in October 2011, many feared a backlash—they worried that America would suddenly realize that women were indeed seeing the kind of combat experienced by less than five percent of the entire U.S. military. But the overwhelming reaction among those who noticed the news coming out of America’s wars was mourning and respect. And her teammates told special operations leaders that nothing would dishonor White’s memory more than for their mission to end. In fact, it was for their beloved teammate’s memory that they continued.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the recently published New York Times best seller “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.”

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