Female soldiers say combat decision a positive recognition of proven courage

Viviene McNamara (fifth from right) experienced combat while with the Army in Iraq in 2004. "When the bullets start flying, you couldn't say, 'I'm not supposed to be here.' "
Viviene McNamara (fifth from right) experienced combat while with the Army in Iraq in 2004. "When the bullets start flying, you couldn't say, 'I'm not supposed to be here.' "
Posted: January 28, 2013

The road from Baghdad to Fallujah was a deadly gauntlet when Army First Lt. Viviene McNamara made the run in April 2004 and came upon an abandoned civilian convoy.

Its trucks had been raked by insurgent gunfire, one driver was slumped in the cab dead, and the rest had fled.

The 12 heavy-equipment transporters in McNamara's platoon became the new targets. A Marine in the group's security detail was soon hit while others ducked. McNamara returned fire from the cover of a truck.

"It didn't matter if you were banned from combat" as a woman, said McNamara, 41, of Lawrenceville, N.J., who has been promoted to captain. "When the bullets start flying, you couldn't say, 'I'm not supposed to be here.' "

Last week's decision by the Defense Department to open combat positions to women was a positive step that recognizes female soldiers' proven courage under fire, said McNamara, now in the New Jersey National Guard.

"I don't see it causing a rush to the recruiting office. But having more options is good," she said. "The military hasn't changed the standards, and if you meet them, you should do the job."

Across the region, women planning to enter the military, currently serving, or retired told The Inquirer the Defense Department's decision was a natural step after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan had drawn women closer to combat.

Yet some wondered whether the military's male-dominated culture would readily accept women in combat - and what positions would be available as the result of the plans officials intend to develop by May 15 and implement by Jan. 1, 2016.

Women make up about 15 percent, or 202,000, of the U.S. military's 1.4 million active personnel, according to the Defense Department. Over the last 10 years, more than 280,000 women have been deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military's mission, and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week.

"The department's goal in rescinding the rule [banning women from combat] is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."

The change comes less than two years after the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell policy," which banned gay and lesbian service members from being open about their sexuality.

Women should be afforded "the opportunity to serve in traditionally all-male assignments if they can meet the standard," said Army Capt. Antonia Greene-Edwards, a member of the 174th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

"Just as our military has adapted how we fight, it's only fitting we transform how our units are configured," said Greene-Edwards, 33, of Blue Bell, who earned the combat action badge in Iraq in 2006. "Putting the right assets in the right places makes all the difference in the world."

More difficult "to transform is an American man's instinct to protect and shelter women from harm," Greene-Edwards said. "Imagine being out on a mission, coming under fire, and the first thing you see is two, three, four fellow soldiers turn their heads looking out for you rather than returning fire, protecting themselves first.

"That's where it becomes a gray area for me," she said. "That's a hard impulse to negate."

A small group of women will enter combat positions in the beginning "and it will grow," said Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the board of directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.

Concerns about the treatment of captured female soldiers should not affect assignments. "There isn't a whole lot of difference between what happens to a man and woman," she said, referring to sexual assaults.

The policy change "is a good thing for women, a good thing for the country, and a good thing for the military services," Vaught said. With years before full implementation, "there's plenty of time to make sure what the impact is."

Female members of the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at Drexel University say they expected the change. "Especially with the increased exposure of women to combat situations and no front line," said Julia Selwyn, 22, a biology major from Washington, who will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in June.

"I'm looking at being a doctor in the Army, and I'm hoping this [policy change] will open it up for me to be closer to forward surgical theaters," she said.

Selwyn thinks most will be OK with the change and she doesn't expect resentment, "but there may be some awkwardness," she said. "The Army is people and there will always be people with their own prejudices."

"But not everyone is suited for that [combat] role - male or female," said fellow Drexel ROTC cadet Catheryn Blankenbiller, 23, of Reinholds, Berks County.

"Personally, I do plan to apply for the female engagement team," which would serve in combat areas, said Blankenbiller, who will receive an environmental science degree in June and be commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Some supporters of the new policy have said the combat ban was one of the "contributing factors to [women's] persecution in the military," said Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. "They were seen as second-class soldiers and . . . many of them felt that added to their lack of respect, and lack of respect feeds harassment."

Organizations have taken both sides of the issue. Nancy Duff Campbell, copresident of the National Women's Law Center, celebrated the decision saying, "Now if the best person for the job is a woman, she will no longer be barred from that job simply because of her gender."

But Jerry Boykin, president of the Family Research Council, which promotes Judeo-Christian values, called it "another social experiment" by those who "have never lived nor fought with an infantry or Special Forces unit."

The availability of combat positions doesn't necessarily mean a woman will apply.

"To each her own," Greene-Edwards said. "I know I won't be signing up for Ranger school, but I know a couple of women who can hack it without instituting a different standard."

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


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