Staff Perspective: Women in Combat

Staff Perspective: Women in Combat

January 2016 is an important date for the US military.  This is the milestone former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set by which the services must open all combat jobs to women or explain why it’s necessary that such positions stay closed if they do not (AP Press, April 2014).

As you will recall, in January 2013, former Secretary of Defense Panetta ended the policy that excluded women from ground combat.  A major reason given for this policy shift was to lift as many barriers as possible that might prevent individuals from seeking the type of military career they want in the US forces (Newsmax, January 24, 2014).

According to Army survey results, 22 percent of enlisted women are interested in combat positions (CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley, April 8, 2014).

In another Army study, 60 women and 100 men were tested to see how fit a soldier needs to be to participate in combat with a focus on the physical requirements.  The test included battlefield simulations like wearing combat gear weighing 70 pounds while pulling a 105 pound wounded soldier through a tank hatch to escape danger. These findings will help define new combat job fitness standards. Interestingly, this is a step the military has never taken before, not even for male soldiers. (CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley, April 8, 2014).

The Army has already begun integrating women into combat positions; for example, female officers now lead cannon platoons and are becoming crewmembers who fire rounds from cannons (Associated Press, April 15, 2014).

Many people seem to agree that being qualified for a combat job depends on whether the person can do the job, not whether that person is a woman or man.  But there are realistic concerns like: whether women can keep up with men physically; women not wanting men to think they qualified for a position because standards were lowered; more women finding themselves in positions/units where they are the solo female and men worrying that women may feel uncomfortable with the  language they use (Associated Press, April 15, 2014).

With so much uncertainty, how will Service members and leadership – both male and female – respond? How will this change in policy impact women and their mental health?  For some female Service members, the opportunity to serve in combat positions previously closed may not only open up career paths they’ve dreamed of, but also allow them to mentally and physically prove to themselves that they can achieve whatever they want.  This type of experiential learning may have a positive impact on their well being.

At the same time, we all know that this long-awaited change that allows women to qualify for ground combat comes at a challenging time given increased reports of sexual harassment and assault in the military and debate about how to prosecute these cases (Associated Press, April 15, 2014).  

If you are a provider working with military personnel, it’s important to keep in mind this changing landscape.  How might the opening of combat positions to women impact female patients – emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally?  So it’s key for us to ask female Service members about their jobs and experiences, including questions like:

  • what they actually do in their position
  • what type of training they have gone through
  • who do they work with (e.g., the number of men/women; their backgrounds)
  • what type of atmosphere they find in their unit/with their comrades
  • what type of combat they may have been exposed to

This is not to say that it isn’t important to consider how male patients may be affected by this policy change.  It’s essential that we don’t hold stereotypes and be open-minded to their reactions as well.

Please share your thoughts about women in combat.

Dr. Paula Domenici is the Director of Civilian Training Programs for the CDP.