A female U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010. (Paula Bronstein / Getty…)
The decision by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to drop the ban on women serving in combat units received widespread praise Thursday, but also some criticism and doubts from the rank and file about whether it would undercut combat effectiveness.
California Air National Guard Maj. Mary Hegar, a decorated combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, said the new policy represented a "culture change" that would make it easier for women to advance their careers and would help the military recruit and retain skilled women.
"It lowers a barrier — the military is now acknowledging that women are not inferior," Hegar said in an interview. "For years, women have served shoulder to shoulder with men, but were not recognized as having served in combat."
Carolyn J. King, a resident of the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles who served in the Air Force from 1979 to 1982, said the decision left her "ecstatic. It makes us no longer second-class citizens. It gives us equal rights — better late than never."
But Bing West, a Vietnam veteran, former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and author of well-regarded books about Marines in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he thought the service chiefs "capitulated" to a politically inspired idea "probably fearing consequences more dire if they stood their ground."
Tom Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and now a senior fellow at a Washington think tank, predicted that integrating women into infantry units would be "far harder than it was to integrate blacks and male gays" because of the tough physical standards, particularly in special forces.
"The real battle is yet to come," Ricks said. "It will be over whether there will be different standards for women than for men, and if so, how different."
Army Lt. Col. Kareem Montague, an artillery battalion commander at Ft. Bragg, N.C., called the new policy "a positive step" that recognized the invaluable role of women in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he had worked for years with female soldiers in combat zones, where they served with distinction.
In Iraq, 32 women were assigned to the forward operating base where Montague was deployed, including members of a support company, a physician assistant and a logistics officer. They served under the same conditions as male soldiers, he said.
"When we talk about the great soldiers we serve with, we don't refer to them by gender," he said. "They're all brothers and sisters in arms."
Ric Epps, a former Air Force intelligence officer and now a political science professor at San Diego State University, said that dropping the ban on women was a reflection that the nature of war has changed and that keeping combat units male-only was outmoded.
"In our male-centric viewpoint, we want to keep women from harm's way," Epps said. "But let's face it: Modern warfare has changed. There are no true front lines; the danger is everywhere, and women have already been there in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The announcement by Panetta, which caught even advocates by surprise, was the talk of various gatherings of veterans and in blogs catering to military topics.
A posting by "Deebow" on the blog BLACKFIVE.net was scathing, saying that Panetta was unleashing a "parting shot at completing the destruction of military readiness and taking yet another brick out of the walls that support our modern society."
The Marine Corps declined to allow reporters on base to discuss the change with active-duty personnel. Marines were also warned not to talk to reporters they encountered off base.
Hegar is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in November against Panetta that challenges the military's combat exclusion policy. The suit, filed in federal court in Northern California, contends that the policy is unconstitutional.
As a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot in Afghanistan in 2009, Hegar and her crew were shot down while trying to rescue three injured soldiers. Wounded, Hegar returned fire while on the ground and completed the rescue. She was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross with a Valor Device and a Purple Heart.
Army Reserve Col. Ellen Haring of Bristow, Va., said she was delighted with the policy change and was confident the military would "do the right thing" and open all positions to women.
"I never doubted this would happen eventually," she said in an interview. "I'm so glad it's happening sooner rather than later."
At least 238,000 positions are closed to women in the armed forces, Haring said, "so this could mean more than a quarter-million new jobs for us."
Haring said she trained for, but was ultimately denied, a position supervising female soldiers who search and interview Afghan women for U.S. special operations units. The job went to a male officer. She has filed suit over the policy as well.