Center for American Progress

Women and Warfare: Denying Combat Recognition Creates ‘Brass Ceiling’

Women and Warfare: Denying Combat Recognition Creates ‘Brass Ceiling’

U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that women can no longer be shielded from enemy fire, but the military still denies them due recognition for their service.

U.S. Army Captain Hellie (last name not given) adjusts her helmet as she walks away from an Apache combat helicopter in Bagram, Afghanistan. (AP/Gurinder Osan)
U.S. Army Captain Hellie (last name not given) adjusts her helmet as she walks away from an Apache combat helicopter in Bagram, Afghanistan. (AP/Gurinder Osan)

The changing nature of warfare necessarily means that women will be placed in positions where combat is inevitable. U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that enemy combatants prefer to bring the battle to civilian-populated areas, targeting both civilians and combatants and men and women alike. Policies designed to keep servicewomen from the frontlines of battle cannot be enforced where frontlines do not exist. Successful counterinsurgency operations have and will continue to demand that women soldiers are placed in combat regardless of whether their role is officially a combat role.

But due to the combat-exclusion policy set forth by the Pentagon in 1994, women in the Army and Marine Corps cannot formally be assigned to ground combat units. Instead they are deployed in combat zones attached to combat units though technically in a support role. The combat-exclusion policy prevents female soldiers and Marines from receiving recognition for their service in combat, which is crucial to promotion into the senior ranks of the military services. Blocking women from official combat occupations has presented a host of problems by creating two classes of service members based on gender—which neither preserves a legitimate national security interest nor shields women from enemy fire. Instead it protects and perpetuates the brass ceiling that women in the military have yet to shatter.

The impending change in Pentagon leadership will either blunt or bolster the progress of military officials and advocacy groups working to repeal the ban on women in combat. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected to retire early in President Barack Obama’s second term, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) is the rumored frontrunner to replace him. Though Hagel has yet to reveal any position on the issue of women in combat, his political record should be of major concern to those committed to putting an end to the Pentagon’s combat-exclusion policy. Hagel has gone on the record opposing “social experiments” in the military—namely repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—and received a dismal 0 percent rating from NARAL, a pro-choice organization that evaluates candidates’ voting records on abortion issues. These are both warning signs that his commitment to expanding opportunities for women in the military may be in stark contrast to that of his immediate predecessors.

Furthermore, the voices are growing louder on both sides of the issue, as the former commandant of the Army’s most senior educational institution publicly opposed lifting the combat ban shortly after four servicewomen filed a legal challenge to the combat-exclusion policy last month. Should Sen. Hagel receive the nomination as the next secretary of defense, it is imperative that he dedicate himself to making the military a more effective and gender-blind fighting force. Without strong leadership, the U.S. military’s steady march toward combat recognition for service women may come to an about-face.

Here are the facts you need to know about women and warfare:

1. Women are already serving in combat. Female soldiers are currently serving in combat zones alongside their male counterparts and have been for the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, there are certain combat positions for which women provide a unique tactical advantage in counterinsurgency operations. Male service members, for example, are prohibited from looking at or speaking to Afghan women on patrols and from touching them at routine checkpoints to search for weapons and explosives—a challenge that poses a security risk that only female service members are equipped to address. The military has responded by creating Female Engagement Teams, or FETS, who are attached onto Army and Marine combat units, live in the same forward operating bases, and even conduct routine patrols but are not formally assigned to these units. This is a bureaucratic maneuver  that allows the military to access servicewomen’s labor in combat situations without actually having to recognize them as combatants.

2. The enemy does not discriminate on the basis of gender. More than 11 percent of combat veterans in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom are women, and more than 150 women have laid down their lives in sacrifice for our country. Thus, the ban doesn’t protect women in combat zones from enemy fire but denies them recognition of their service in combat. Despite the ban, two women have received the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest honor for valor in combat.

3. Nobody is advocating for a change in standards. Ground combat occupations are among the most physically grueling in the military, and high physical standards are paramount to combat success. The military should not seek to change these standards, but repealing the combat-exclusion policy would simply allow every soldier and Marine to compete for these prestigious assignments—regardless of gender. Since 1999, women have been admitted to the Sapper Leader School—one of the most physically demanding programs in the Army—and more than 50 servicewomen have since graduated from the course, some even with honors, while being held to the exact same physical standards as male service members. Ironically, the course is designed primarily for a combat engineer position that, because of the ban, is currently closed to women.

4. Serving in the combat arms is a pipeline to career advancement, which women cannot access. In a report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission—a group established as part of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act to study diversity among military leaders—the combat-exclusion policy is identified as a barrier to promotion for women to the flag and general officer ranks. Despite making up 15 percent of the active-duty force and 20 percent of the reserve force, there have only been two female four-star generals in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces, largely because the most senior officers in the military come from combat arms branches. Fixing the gender disparity in the military’s highest officers begins with lifting the restrictions facing women earlier in their service careers.

5. The military, by its own initiative, is already working to expand opportunities for female service members in part as an acknowledgement that women are already in combat. Although opponents of women in combat may frame the issue as outside interest groups forcing social experiments in the military, the Defense Department has taken steps to expand opportunities to women of its own accord. This is, in part, a recognition that women are already fighting in combat units In recent years, the Navy has placed women on submarines, the Army has opened up six combat specialties to women, and the Marine Corps has admitted women to the infantry officer course, though more than 20 percent of jobs and 238,000 unique positions across the force remain off-limits to women.

6. Despite the fact that women are serving in ground combat, they have not received the same level of combat training as their male counterparts. Female Engagement Teams have been attached to elite units like the Special Forces, who have spent much of their careers preparing specifically for the challenges of ground combat. Women, in contrast, receive general predeployment training with the unit they have been attached as well as Female Engagement Team training, but their primary mission occupation specialty training is in a support role. As a result of the combat-exclusion policy, women do not undergo the same preparation for combat as the rest of the units to whom they are attached, which means they are at an increased safety risk compared to their male counterparts who have received combat-intensive training.

7. Delineating service members’ career trajectories based on gender creates a divisive culture that may contribute to sexual assault and rape in the military. According to the Department of Defense, one in three women in the military have experienced sexual assault during their service, and the majority of female veterans report that they were sexually harassed during their service. More than 80 percent of sexual assaults in the military go unreported. Because combat roles are the most honored and prestigious roles in the military, excluding women from these roles may subjugate them to being perceived as second-class service members. This hierarchal division of soldiers based on gender instead of performance or ability may be contributing to the military culture that has made sexual harassment, assault, and rape such a prevalent experience for female service members.

8. Female veterans who have served in combat may not receive the same benefits after war because they are perceived not to have been in combat. Women soldiers want and deserve recognition for their service to their country as a matter of principle, but acknowledgement for service in combat has important administrative implications as well. Veterans who have seen combat are eligible for an enhanced benefits package, which provides care and medication for all conditions potentially related to a service member’s time in combat. Women may have more difficulty producing documentation that accurately reflects their service, which results in female veterans not receiving the same level of health care as male veterans they served alongside in ground combat.

Female soldiers and Marines have and will continue to serve their country valiantly in combat zones. But the combat-exclusion policy fails to recognize the actual nature of these veterans’ service, effectively denying them opportunity for career advancement and contributing to a divisive culture of gender discrimination in the armed forces. The Pentagon has taken the first steps to ending the combat-exclusion policy of its own volition and should work to finish what it started by eliminating it altogether and establishing gender-blind standards for all military occupations.

It is critical for the betterment of our Armed Forces that the administration nominates a secretary of defense who understands that national security demands both a unified military force and the opportunity for the most qualified service members to rise to the top—regardless of gender.

Katie Miller is the Special Assistant for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Lindsay Rosenthal is the Special Assistant for Health Policy and Women’s Health and Rights at the Center.

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Katie Miller

Research Associate

Lindsay Rosenthal

Research Assistant