Women in Combat

On January 24, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles in the military. I followed up with Iraq war veteran Chantelle Bateman, one of the veteran photographers we feature in this month’s show, as well as Ariela Migdal of the American Civil Liberties Union and Thomas James Brennan, a journalist and combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.


AMY DIPIERRO: When I first asked Corporal Chantelle Bateman what it was like to be a woman in the Marines, she told me that it’s not that she feared men wouldn’t trust her; it was just the truth.

BATEMAN: On some level, as a woman, you feel like you have to, y’know, put that extra-extra on to be taken seriously, and not to be fucked with on a number of levels.

DIPIERRO: Two days after our interview, at the end of January, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in combat. But can that really change the culture Bateman was talking about?

Supporters of the change say it will open career opportunities to women in the armed services, but in a survey this summer, 17 percent of male Marines reported they would be likely to leave the Corps if women entered combat positions.

When I called back Bateman, a former Northeast Field Organizer for Iraq Veterans Against the War, she said that was silly; women are already in those roles anyway.

BATEMAN: So really it’s like being in a relationship, and having kids with somebody, and after 10 years they’re like, ‘Hey, do you want to get married?’ … Thanks for throwing a ring on it, but I’ve been your wife for the last 10 years.

MIGDAL: It’s not beta-testing, it’s on the ground testing in war.

DIPIERRO: Ariela Migdal is a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, or A.C.L.U. In November, the A.C.L.U. filed a suit against the Justice Department, arguing it has no right to bar women from holding ground combat specialties.

Migdal says women in female engagement teams, for example, carried the same gear and often faced the danger as their male peers, but did not hold the same titles. Starting in 2009, these units of female Marines helped to visit and collect intelligence from Afghan women. They did not formally serve in combat missions, but commanders found ways to work around the ban.

MIGDAL: Instead of assigning women to the units they would attach them. Instead of integrating women directly into the units they would put them, quote, “in direct support” of the units, but they’d still be out there doing foot patrols with the infantry.

BRENNAN: Please don’t make me sound like a chauvinist.

DIPIERRO: Thomas James Brennan is a retired Sergeant in the Marine Corps and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

BRENNAN: From the patrols that I’ve gone on with integrated female engagement teams, I wouldn’t feel comfortable personally having them permanently attached to my squad. There were times when men had to carry some of their gear for them because they were tired and they were slowing down movement. And when you get patrols slowed down, you’re just making yourself a more vulnerable target.

DIPIERRO: Brennan – now a reporter for The Robesonian in Lumberton, North Carolina – says female engagement teams were crucial to gathering intelligence in Afghanistan, but their jobs were not the same as soldiers in the infantry.

BRENNAN: I’m not trying to discredit anything that the female engagement teams do. They’ve got some amazing female Marines, but (once again) they are not infantry.

DIPIERRO: Bateman says lifting the combat ban might boost some career aspirations, but it won’t change military culture, or American culture.

BATEMAN: It’s interesting to be in a position to trust your life to someone who doesn’t think you belong here in the first place, and what does that do to you as somebody who has to deal with this tough stuff called war next to these people who, y’know, are constantly telling you that you can’t cut it just because you have a vagina.

Equality for women doesn’t exist in the world, so like the expectation that a policy could change a culture in the military would just be some false hope.

DIPIERRO: While Secretary Panetta suggested recommends integration begin as soon as possible, each service may appeal to the defense secretary for specific exceptions in the next several months.

One thing that has changed? The Marine Corps announced at the end of 2012 that it would no longer use female engagement teams in Afghanistan. As of this year, Afghan National Security Forces have officially taken over the teams’ former duties.

For War News Radio, I’m Amy DiPierro.

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