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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : Let Women in the Military 'Be All That We Can Be'

July 28, 1991|Carol Barkalow | Carol Barkalow, a captain in the Army, is the author of "In the Men's House" (Poseidon). She is currently attending the Command and General Staff College

LEAVENWORTH, KAN. — On July 7, 1976, along with 118 other women, I entered West Point, the first class to include women. I remain on active duty today, having recently served as a division transportation officer with the 24th Infantry Division, which spearheaded the attack into Iraq. During my years of service, I have watched the military's treatment of women evolve from a rather strained accommodation to an acceptance and acknowledgment of our professionalism and abilities.

Despite such progress, however, women are still prohibited, by law and military policy, from serving in offensive combat roles and some non-combat jobs. These restrictions deny women access to the mid-grade jobs that ultimately lead to the highest positions of authority. Out of more than 400 generals in the Army today, two are women. Fortunately, as a result of Just Cause in Panama and, more recently, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the exclusion of women from combat has become the focus of public and political debate, and is one of the key issues facing the military today.

In 1948, Congress enacted legislation prohibiting women in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps from flying fighter aircraft in combat and being assigned to combatant ships. The Army, not bound by these laws, subsequently prohibited women from serving in the infantry, armor, cannon field artillery, combat aviation and the special-forces branches, as well as support positions connected with these forces.

On May 22, the House Armed Services Committee voted to repeal the law that prohibits women from flying fighter aircraft in combat. On July 9, a Senate subcommittee recommended postponing action on the issue for more study. Congress should stop stalling. No study could ever put to rest all society's fears about women in combat. If Congress passes the proposed legislation, the services will have the flexibility to include all qualified personnel in every job, regardless of gender.

Combat-exclusion laws should be eliminated because they are based on a doctrine that has little application in modern warfare. There is no clear "front line" on today's battlefield. Weaponry has made virtually all areas of the battlefield vulnerable. Women are at risk whether they are in the front or rear. Indeed, at times women are at greater risk, because they lack the ability to adequately defend themselves from attack. In Desert Storm, the support unit, which included women, for the lead combat brigade in the 24th Infantry Division ended up only six kilometers behind the brigade. But it had little defensive capability.

For each job in the military, there is a standard; if a soldier, male or female, can perform up to that standard, he or she should be allowed to hold that job. Women have already proved that they can fly combat aircraft--but, because of the 1948 law, they are prohibited from being assigned to the ships that carry the aircraft. Desert Storm proved, once and for all, that female pilots can endure the stress of combat. In many cases, they were more vulnerable to attack because they could not fly as high or as fast as the fighter planes.

One of the major reasons that the senior military leadership is hesitant about changing the law is that these men have had limited opportunities to work with women as peers. To them, women are mothers, wives or daughters. Accordingly, many defend their position by insisting they would not want their daughter in combat. That decision belongs to their daughter. In the end, it is no more or less tragic to lose a mother, sister or daughter than a father, brother or son.

Opponents also argue that women lack a "killer" instinct. This argument ignores the presence of women on the battlefield as a historical fact. From the most ancient times to today, women have died for country and cause. Many of these women were not just good soldiers, but good leaders as well.

Leaders are entrusted with the care and well-being of their soldiers--they are called upon to play the role of a "nurturer," women's supposed strength. Good leadership always entails some degree of nurturing.

In the desert, I witnessed the same type of relationships forming between men and women as traditionally occur among men--mutual respect and caring borne of enduring similar dangers and hardships. My division ended up 50 kilometers west of Basra, Iraq. At one point, I lived in a tent with six men and another woman. There were no problems.

Military women are as competent, capable and committed to their work as their male colleagues; they are an integral part of the best-trained military in the world. Now is the time to repeal the outdated laws and allow women to be all that we can be.

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