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Opinion: Combat integration: Not bad, not good enough

Jan. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Col. Ellen Haring
Col. Ellen Haring ()
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Jan. 24 marks the one-year anniversary of the elimination of the combat exclusion policy, which officially kept women from accessing nearly a quarter-million military jobs. So what has changed for Army women in the past year? Not a lot.

The defense secretary gave the military services and Special Operations Command three years to open all positions or to request, by exception, to keep some positions closed. So far, no requests have been made to keep any positions closed but only a few positions have actually been opened and none as a result of the Jan. 24, 2013, announcement.

The good news is that the Army appears to be proceeding down a deliberate path to develop gender-free occupational standards for all closed specialties. The Army employed a team of outside research scientists to oversee the establishment of physical standards and has opened a few previously closed occupations. Furthermore, the Army is now allowing women to serve in open specialties down to the support company staffs of 17 of its 50-plus brigade combat teams. But the recent openings are a result of the 2012 report to Congress that changed the co-location rule and allowed the services to open staff positions in some BCTs. It is not a result of the lifting of the combat exclusion policy.

And that’s about where the good news ends because the Army is moving inexcusably slowly and with little transparency. For example, why hasn’t the Army sent Congress notification of its intent to open all remaining brigade combat teams? If there’s a legitimate reason for this delay, the Army should offer an explanation. And why does the Army continue to exclude women from accessing leadership courses such as Ranger School, which accepts male chaplains and doctors and even airmen and sailors but categorically excludes all women regardless of their qualifications, branch or unit of assignment?

The physical standards portion of the Army’s approach is just one part of the deliberate effort to expand women’s participation in the Army. The second component of the Army’s process is a gender integration study of “institutional and cultural factors” and seems to be composed of a series of surveys being administered to service members. This is where the Army’s approach becomes even less clear. In October, all infantrymen were asked to complete an online survey regarding their “thoughts” on the possibility of opening the infantry to women. The survey asked infantrymen to agree or disagree with such statements as:

■ Female soldiers expect special consideration for “female problems.”

■ Fraternization is unavoidable when a unit includes both male and female soldiers.

■ My unit’s ability to coordinate effectively to accomplish our goals will decrease with the integration of female infantry soldiers.

■ I believe that some female soldiers in my unit have or would use pregnancy to avoid deploying.

■ In your opinion, will most female soldiers be able to perform the following tasks associated with the 11B MOS? (while wearing a minimum of 75 pounds of uniform and individual equipment) Engage targets with a .50-caliber M2 machine gun. Lift 153 pounds and carry 10 meters.

A good researcher knows that a survey with questions like these is biased from the outset and is likely to further bias survey participants against the target population.

Furthermore, since infantry physical standards still haven’t been set or validated by the research team (they are scheduled to be evaluated this spring), asking male soldiers their “opinion” of whether or not women can meet standards that they have not been held to is indicative of problematic research.

The bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter what infantry men “think” women can do. What’s important is whether or not women can meet validated standards. Finally, what is the purpose of these surveys? How will the information they reveal be used?

Keeping integration a mystery only adds to both negative and positive speculation about what is happening. An active-duty lieutenant recently told me that the general buzz and expectation at Fort Benning, Ga., is that women will never be allowed to join the infantry. This kind of rumor, coupled with questionable surveys, builds a resistance to the possible inclusion of women and will make integration doubly hard when it happens.

Last April, the Army leadership promised to “keep the American public and the Army informed” about what the Army is doing and the progress they are making relative to integrating women into previously closed occupations. But there has been no concerted effort to keep us informed or to update us on progress.

Ultimately, soldiers follow their leaders, and better-informed leaders make better-informed soldiers. The better informed we are, the better equipped we are to deal with change as it happens. This change is good for the Army, but it needs to be better managed.

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