September 2, 2009 — Once again, the debate over women fighting in combat positions has found its way to the forefront of American discourse - and frankly, it's time. Today's military operates in combat zones with no front lines and where achieving victory is ultimately decided not through bullets but through relationship building with local populations. Limiting a segment of the American population because of gender from participating in the full spectrum of engagement hurts the nation's ability to achieve mission success.
In 1994, Congress changed the law, permitting women to serve in direct combat operations in the air and sea. I served six combat tours as a KC-135 pilot in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo and recently returned from serving as squadron commander charged with running operations at Sather Air Base, Iraq.
Women on the ground, however, can serve in every role except those "whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat." The rationale to limiting integration within ground operations was the potential harm to mission effectiveness and risk to American lives.
The insurgent wars of Afghanistan and Iraq created an environment with ill-defined geographical battle lines, resulting in the continual threat of enemy engagement. As such, over the last seven years, units with women in their ranks routinely engaged with the enemy - and those women executed their duties professionally and effectively, garnering distinction along the way.
The argument that women as a whole do not have the physical strength or mental aptitude to perform well in combat is simply not true. But don't take it from me; ask the men in those units. "I don't know a single Marine combat service support unit in Iraq who could operate without their female Marines," says Lt. Col. Jeff Goodes, a Marine officer who recently returned from his third tour in Iraq. When asked, Staff Sgt James Baker responded, "We didn't look at them as females serving. ... We just saw another Marine."
Commanders in al-Anbar Province expanded the role of the Lioness Program - originally intended to provide a culturally sensitive option for searching Iraqi women at checkpoints - to attaching the specially trained female Marines with the Army Operations Team and Civil Affairs Group on missions that interact with the local populations. This proved so successful that in February, the Marine Corps deployed an all-female Marine team to southern Afghanistan with the ground combat element of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force.
Bottom line: The idea that women participating in ground combat would damage mission effectiveness no longer holds true.
In numerical terms, the military cannot afford to continue to limit women from serving in combat units. Additionally, the administrative gymnastics currently required to accomplish missions while adhering to the current policy is a bureaucratic nightmare that military commanders simply do not need.
Women military personnel also offer a capability that their male counterparts lack: the ability to interact with Iraqi and Afghan women and girls. The potential for human-intelligence gathering as well as relationship building in more closed cultures cannot be underestimated.
There will be challenges to implementing this final stage of full gender integration, but these challenges are not herculean. Critics are quick to point out logistical concerns or mention cases of fellow soldiers threatening servicewomen, but such objections pale in comparison to the problem of maintaining the status quo. A service-specific, phased implementation process is appropriate. However, as with any time the military has sought to make a significant change or to further integration, whether for gender or race, it has always been and will always be leadership and training that sets and enforces the standards.
It's time that Congress and Department of Defense policymakers provide U.S. combat forces with every resource available. Our success may just depend on it.