A new policy announced last week that will allow women to serve in all combat jobs in the military is drawing mixed reactions — from celebration to warnings that the Army will become weaker — both locally and nationally.
“I don’t have a lot of problems as long as there are no special qualifications ... for women,” said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Steve Phillips, a Kempner resident.
Before he retired in 1985, Phillips worked as a combat control specialist, one of only a handful of combat jobs in the Air Force that was previously off limits to women.
However, combat control specialists and all other military occupations and positions will be open to women, without exception, beginning in Janurary, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced last Thursday.
Combat control specialists sit on a ridge alone outside a hostile city “acting as a one-man air traffic controller while at the same time being fully prepared to join the fight if necessary,” according to the Air Force website.
The training for the Special Operations job is intense, with 80 percent of the class falling out in the first eight weeks, Phillips said.
“It’s extremely demanding,” he said.
While Phillips said he has mixed feelings on the issue, he said he’s OK with it as long as standards don’t drop and the reason for the change isn’t simply political.
“You don’t dumb down the force — or weaken the force — due to political reasons,” he said.
However, others believe that adding women to the mix of combat jobs will do just that — weaken the Army.
In a letter to the editor in Sunday’s Killeen Daily Herald, retired Col. Malvin Handy, a Harker Heights resident, criticizied the decision to fully integrate the combat force.
A weaker Army
“Our Army is getting weaker and weaker. Not only is it getting weaker by getting smaller and budget constrained, but also now we apparently are going to put women in all combat arms, to include special operations units,” he wrote in the letter.
“We already have different (physical training) standards for men and women, so do you really think we will change that? Moreover, there have been many studies that show that mixed-gender units are not as capable as all-male units,” according to Handy’s letter.
Physical strength is a factor for Army jobs, especially in the combat realm, according to the retired colonel.
“Company commanders of heavy truck companies already have to send three drivers on missions (two males and one female) because the one female driver cannot help manipulate the large tires in case there is a flat. Can you imagine young women in armor units trying to break track on a tank during field operations? I don’t think so,” Handy wrote.
Unsurprisingly, active-duty commanders are complying with the new policy.
“As the senior military advisor and the senior uniformed leader, it’s my job now to assist the secretary with full implementation to make sure that we do it in a way that maintains our combat effectiveness, maintains the health and welfare of our troops and takes advantage of the talent of all the men and women that we have in uniform,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a Defense Department statement last week. “So we are getting after that now.”
When the general served as the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the service asked for exceptions for infantry and special operations forces. Carter examined the plans for integration of women into all specialties provided to him by each service and concluded a good implementation process would overcome the concerns expressed by the Marine Corps, according to the statement.
Next, each of the military departments will provide the defense secretary with their implementation plans by Jan. 1. “My role is to assist the secretary in overseeing the implementation of the plan for the force,” Dunford said. “That’s what he has tasked me to do and I look forward to doing that.”
Fort Hood officials said they will support the plan as it is implemented throughout the military.
“We all just heard the announcement, and the implementation is going to be an Armywide plan driven from the top in the coming weeks, but we’ll support it wholeheartedly at Fort Hood,” said III Corps and Fort Hood spokesman Col. Christopher Garver, who is deployed with the corps in the Middle East.
The corps, which deployed in September, is tasked with leading the ground attack against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The new policy was met with celebration from many female veterans in the Killeen-Fort Hood area.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Acquanetta Pullins joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1972, retiring after 20 years, and said Carter’s announcement is another step in the evolution of the military and the nation.
“I wasn’t surprised. I think a lot of people probably felt that would be the decision. It’s evolved. The country has evolved. ... It continues to evolve,” said Pullins, president of the local chapter of the Women’s Army Corps Veterans Association.
“I think it’s awesome, especially for women who want to pursue those (combat) roles,” said retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Lila Holley, after hearing Carter’s announcement.
“We bring a lot to the table as women. … We’ll (now) be considered on a level playing field. The respect factor will definitely increase,” she said.
Holley, of Killeen, retired from the Army in 2012, after 22 years, and said she hopes the future for women in the military holds more leadership opportunities.
“I hope the opportunities will be there for them to pursue leadership positions in those infantry and combat arms units. I hope this is not just a hand-wave or a nice gesture,” she said.
“I stand by and salute those women who choose to pursue those roles, and cheer them on,” Holley added.
Willie Browning, a 20-year Army veteran and volunteer veteran service officer in Harker Heights, has some concerns about maintaining standards for women in combat, but overall, Browning said the leap forward for women “will open up enormous doors.”
Browning has seen opportunities for women in the military grow tremendously since she entered the service in 1964.
“When I joined the Army 50 years ago, there were four things women could do. We could be medics. We could be secretaries. We could be telephone operators. We could be cooks. That was it,” she said.
To dispute arguments that a co-ed military force can’t be as effective, Browning points to Russia and Israel.
“Historically, that has not been true. ... There are other countries with combat arms females,” she said.
Fort Hood’s biggest combat unit — the 1st Cavalry Division — would likely see the most change in the years ahead if the plan to open all combat jobs to women continues.
Currently, the division has close to 25,000 troops, and about 7,250 of those soldiers have combat jobs that are currently not available to women.
Across the military, nearly 220,000 jobs, about 10 percent, had been closed to women.
“They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” Carter said “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
At Fort Hood, the main combat jobs closed to women are infantry, armored crewman and scouts.
According to Fort Hood officials, the 1st Cavalry Division is currently authorized by the Army to have about 4,400 infantry positions, 1,150 armored crewman positions and 1,250 scout positions. The division also has about 450 soldiers known as forward observers, who come into contact with the enemy and call for artillery.
Armored crewman, or “tankers,” operate Army battle tanks, mainly the M1A2 Abrams. Scouts often use Humvees or other vehicles to patrol the battle zone in front of other units.
All those jobs will open to women as part of Carter’s new policy.
Other combat jobs
Other combat jobs, including most artillery and combat engineer positions, were opened to women during the past three years.
In late 2012, the Army opened up more jobs to women, including Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Abrams tank mechanics, artillery radar specialists and crew members for the highly destructive artillery weapon, the multiple-launch rocket system.
In 2014, Maj. Christina Cook became the first woman in the 1st Cavalry Division to qualify on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which means she passed a series of live-fire tests leading a Bradley crew down a Fort Hood firing range.
While being in command of a Bradley isn’t normal for a female soldier, Cook said she needed to qualify on the Bradley when she became the operations officer for an engineer battalion.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Cook said, explaining her male crew members saw her as just another officer instead of a female officer.
With the military’s new policy, however, female Bradley and tank crewmembers could be a normal sight.