Women in the Infantry? Yes.
This was published yesterday on Breach Bang Clear. Not surprisingly, many readers launched into vitriolic diatribes against the idea, without bothering to read the article. On the other hand, quite a few infantrymen agreed with me. I’ll take that as a win. 🙂
Over the last several years we’ve had much debate on the topic of women in the infantry. Support for the idea comes from many military women, some of whom, like the Lionesses of the Marine Corps and the Special Forces “enablers”, were embedded with infantry units. Some women in non-combat units who were occasionally on combat missions have also spoken out in favor of allowing women into the infantry.
Unfortunately, support also comes from ignorant morons who never served, would never serve, don’t know anyone who serves, and view military gender integration as a social justice cause. They make stupid statements like “The military has finally recognized that there are no lines or drawn battlefields anymore where they could put the ‘girls’ in the rear. If you carry a weapon, you are in the thick of it.”
Yes, some moron on the Huffington Post actually said that.
A few female combat veterans have spoken out against the idea, including Marine Captain Katie Petronio. She described the physical damage she suffered while working with infantry units, and strongly criticized the federal government’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, which was pushing women into combat arms. “…None of the committee members are on active duty or have any recent combat or relevant operational experience relating to the issue they are attempting to change.”
We’ve also heard from long-time infantrymen, many of whom oppose giving women even the opportunity to test for combat arms. They and others see the whole idea as “nothing but trouble”. Many veterans, particularly (though by no means exclusively) Cold War-era vets, seem to be dead set against any type of military gender integration, on any level.
I’ve spoken on the subject as well. My take was, allow women into the infantry, but only if they pass a screening test beforehand. And no matter what, don’t lower the standards. But my opinion only means so much. Although I’m a combat veteran, I was never infantry.
So everyone seems to be talking about women in infantry. Everyone except women who were infantry, and who actually were in combat.
Yes, they do exist.
I was recently introduced online to a woman who served seven years as a Danish Army infantry soldier and deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan she was a rifleman (her word), Carl Gustav recoilless rifle gunner and team leader. That role is roughly equivalent to a fire team leader, but with three soldiers instead of four; her role as fire team leader also made her assistant squad leader. She was in multiple firefights, had casualties in her platoon, and carried her load alongside everyone else. She’s also an American citizen, born here but raised in Denmark. She has plenty of actual infantry combat experience, and understands American culture. Her opinions on this subject deserve to be heard.
At this point, I’m sure some readers are walking away in disgust at the very idea that a woman could be infantry. See you guys later, hope you open your mind someday. On the other side of the debate, “social justice warriors” who know nothing at all about the military won’t read past the last paragraph before proclaiming, “See? Women are the same as men! Open the infantry to all women, you cismale gendernormative fascists!” Well, screw you simpleminded “I put lofty ideals over reality” idiots.
And some readers are skeptical about women in the infantry, but willing to listen to opposing views. Those are the people I’m trying to reach.
I’d like to introduce you open-minded readers to our Danish female infantry combat vet. She’s chosen to remain anonymous, so I’ll call her “Mary”. Mary has moved on from combat arms, and isn’t trying to become the spokesperson for women in the infantry. She’s just a proud infantry combat vet who agreed to talk about her experience.
I’ve spent hours speaking to Mary online and on Skype. Like most infantry soldiers, she’s crude, crass and fun to talk with. Her language probably draws horrified stares when she’s around polite company (she really likes making penis jokes). She’s intelligent and has a quick wit. And no, she’s not a “big-boned” butch lesbian with a crew cut and mustache. She’s straight, married to a man she met in the army, and is pretty much the beautiful blond goddess Americans imagine all Scandinavian women to be.
Mary’s first deployment was to Kosovo, as a peacekeeper in the Mitrovica region. Kosovo experiences periodic unrest, but Mary didn’t see any combat there. Afghanistan, of course, was different.
Mary’s company went to Helmand Province in 2009 for a six-month deployment. She was in a sister company to the Danish troops in the documentary Armadillo, which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Helmand Province back then, as now, was no joke. When she returned to Helmand in 2011, it wasn’t any safer.
Mary wasn’t a hero, and doesn’t claim to have done anything more than her job. But that job was to be a real infantry soldier. Even though she’s a woman (a female woman!), she somehow pulled it off.
I’m going to identify the most common questions and objections raised when we discuss females in combat arms, then let Mary give her opinion on each one. Where applicable, my own observations and opinions will be included and will be clearly identified as such.
“Women aren’t physically capable of serving in the infantry.”
Denmark has a conscript army. Draftees have to serve at least four months, just long enough for basic training. Females aren’t subject to conscription but are welcome to volunteer. Mary joined the army at twenty-two and was in an infantry basic training platoon with thirty males and ten females. She made it through with no issues, along with five other females. Two females dropped due to medical problems and two quit (volunteers are allowed to quit, draftees aren’t).
“After those four months, if you pass with a high enough score, you can opt for ‘real’ military training,” Mary said. “After the conscript period, out of 400 conscripts, about 100 of us stayed on for what they call Reaction Force Training, which is a short-term contract where you train for eight months and then deploy to Kosovo or Afghanistan.”
Of the six females in her platoon who graduated basic, Mary and two others chose to stay infantry. But she was quick to point out that Denmark’s standards for infantry were nothing to brag about when she joined.
“Back then, our PT standards were a shambles. You had to pass a two-mile run in fifteen minutes, and do some pushups and situps. There was no special test for infantry, pretty much anyone could do it. Since Denmark really started contributing to the War on Terror, we’ve raised the standards quite a bit for combat arms. And the standards are the same for males and females.”
Mary spent the Kosovo deployment working out, which prepared her for Afghanistan. “I wasn’t in great shape before I joined the army. Since then I’ve gotten much better, although I’m still better at strength tests than running.” In Afghanistan her combat load, depending on whether she was acting as rifleman, team leader or Carl Gustav gunner, averaged about eighty pounds. According to Mary, she had no issue humping her ruck, never fell out of a march, and never had to pass off her gear to anyone else. Not even when she was carrying the twenty-one pound Gustav.
Most missions in Afghanistan last no longer than a day. Mary never had to hump a 100+ pound ruck for days or weeks at a time. She was quick to point out that she was mechanized infantry, and even on nine-day missions always had an M113 close by. Those who oppose women in the infantry will likely claim that humping eighty pounds on an eight-hour patrol is “easy” compared to the multi-day slogs with over 100 pounds grunts have endured in training and past wars.
True enough. But that’s not the standard for passing infantry school. If that’s the standard we want to maintain, then hold male infantrymen to it as well. I imagine our infantry units would lose quite a few male troops if we did.
“Males and females are physiologically different, and should be separated in the military just like they are in sports.”
Part of the argument against females in the infantry focuses on physiological differences between males and females. The best female athlete can’t compete with the best male athlete, the average woman isn’t as strong as the average male. Genders are separated in professional sports and the Olympics. That’s all true. Mary has, I think, a realistic answer to that.
“People always point to the separate male and female leagues in sports, which is a valid point — it is biology — but infantry isn’t the major leagues, SOF is. Obviously we’d love to have all our infantrymen consist of 6’5″ super-athletes, but it’s not realistic. If you’re letting in small guys who barely pass the standards, what’s the compelling argument for keeping women out?
“And the ‘I’m 3000 pounds with all my gear on, how is Sally Cheerleader going to drag my ass out of the line of fire’ argument? Jesus. EVERY platoon has at least one or two guys no one else can carry. We had one huge motherfucker that needed three to just pull him out of an APC. So is there gonna be an upper size limit, too? Some guys were so tall, they got back problems from sitting in a cramped APC. Everyone’s got their cross to carry. Everyone comes with benefits and drawbacks.”
Chris Hernandez is a 20 year police officer, former Marine and currently serving National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com, Iron Mike magazine and has published two military fiction novels, Proof of Our Resolve and Line in the Valley, through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at email@example.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).
Filed under: Afghanistan, Writing | 51 Comments
Tags: afghanistan war, veteran writers, women in combat, women in infantry