COLUMBIA, S.C. — Don’t tell Sgt. 1st — Class Marielena Witten, a U.S. Army soldier for 14 years, that women don’t belong in combat. She’s already been there.
Deployed to Iraq in 2003 in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, she came under the same machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire on her convoy as her male counterparts.
“I just rolled down the window of the Humvee and laid down suppressing fire,” said the Philadelphia native, now a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson in Columbia, the Army’s largest basic combat training base. “We got through it.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a surprise announcement Jan. 24, lifted the ban on women in more than 1,400 front-line jobs and elite commando positions. The services have until May to submit implementation plans for full integration on Jan. 1, 2016.
The announcement sent ripples through Fort Jackson, which trains 70 percent of the women in the Army, and Parris Island in Beaufort, S.C., which trains all of the enlisted females in the Marine Corps.
“This is a good opportunity for women to extend their careers,” said 23-year-old Spc. Mallory Schulze of Bel Air, Md., in between firing machine guns and shoulder-mounted anti-tank weapons at a remote, sandy Fort Jackson firing range. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”
A CBS news poll shows that Americans support lifting the ban by a 2-to-1 margin. But a U.S. Marine Corps survey also shows that up to 22 percent of male Marines say they would leave the Corps if females are allowed in front-line combat roles.
Above and beyond concerns about bathroom, shower and sleeping arrangements, the main arguments that have surfaced against women in the infantry and other combat roles are:
Women are not as emotionally capable of unflinchingly killing an adversary in close combat, some opponents say.
Women in general don’t have the strength to carry a male counterpart who is wounded out of harm’s way, some contend.
And women more often are targeted for rape.
“The country is 230 years old and never had a woman assigned to direct combat roles,” said Johnnie Graham, 46, of Blythewood, a retired Army Special Forces master sergeant. “And how many other countries have women in combat roles? I don’t think it is a smart idea. I don’t think they have thought it through.”
Graham, who led protective service details in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that it’s human nature for a man to take care of a woman, “and now you are going to put women on the front lines? That’s going to cause issues. And God forbid, we know what could happen to them if they are captured.”
Maj. John M. Teschner, 28, of St. Louis, commander of a training company at Fort Jackson, disagrees that women don’t have the physical or mental capacity for combat or would be placed in more danger than any other soldier.
“I say (bull),” said Teschner, who was deployed to Iraq in 2008. “The enemy doesn’t care who you are, man or a woman.”
Teschner added that in his six years in the Army, he has had male soldiers who couldn’t meet the physical requirements for the infantry and females who no doubt could if given the chance.
“It’s not a matter of sex, it’s a matter of ability,” he said. “I can pick out some pretty scrawny males. And I’ve got females you would want on your team.”
Spc. Mallory is in her sixth week of basic training with Delta Company, 3rd Battalion 34th Infantry Regiment. She and five of her fellow female soldiers in training unanimously agreed that women should be allowed in the infantry, and all said they would consider it — but only if they can reach the same physical, academic and job requirements as their male counterparts.
“We need to prove ourselves just as much as the males,” said 23-year-old Pfc. Amanda Leslie of Clovis, N.M.
Presently, for instance, women are graded on a different physical training scale than men. That should not be the case if a female soldier wants to enter the infantry, where soldiers depend on each other to save their lives if necessary.
“Women are stronger than people think,” said Pfc. Ameerah Khan, 20, of East Orange, N.J. “I would put my life on the line for my battle buddy.”There is no front line?
And some argue that even the term “front line” is antiquated.
Most of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred because of roadside bombs, suicide bombers, indirect mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.
“There’s no front line like World War II anymore; there hasn’t been a front line in years,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Stephanie Truax of Third Army, based in Sumter. “In the end, the bullets, the shrapnel and the enemy don’t care about your MOS (Military Occupational Specialties).”
Truax has spent 25 years in the Army and has been deployed twice, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. Her job was to pilot a Blackhawk helicopter in medical evacuation missions and combat support and train other pilots to do so.
The St. Anne, Ill., native called the announcement “a good decision.”
“For some women, it’s a chance to prove themselves and an opportunity to have the same chance for promotion as their male counterparts,” she said.
Truax said the wounded soldiers she evacuated “didn’t care that it was a female flying through a stream of bullets to get them.”
Capt. Darelle Sabb, 28, commander of the 34th Battalion’s Delta Company at Fort Jackson, agreed.
“There’s no clear front line,” said Sabb, an A.C. Flora High School graduate from Columbia who was deployed in Iraq in 2008 as an armor officer. “Things can happen anywhere. If a female can meet infantry standards, I’m all for it. I know a lot of very aggressive females.”
Officially, the Army and Marine Corps are doing what the military does: Following orders.
“I’ll do whatever they tell me to do,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Brill, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment at Fort Jackson. “They are soldiers first. I don’t care what their gender is.”
In an email, Parris Island commanders said:
“Marine Corps recruit training is focused on transforming civilians into basic Marines, regardless of gender and regardless of the job they will have during their enlistment. At the moment, it’s too early to know what, if any, effects the Secretary of Defense’s decision may have on recruit training on Parris Island. The Marine Corps is developing an implementation plan, which is expected to be complete in May 2013.”
Also in an email, Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, Fort Jackson’s commanding general, said that the decision will have no effect on Fort Jackson’s training.
“Since October 1995, Fort Jackson has had full-scale gender-integrated training,” he said.
Asked about his opinion of the decision, Roberts said: “Since we went to war 10 years ago, women have contributed in unprecedented ways to our mission and have proven their ability to serve in the same environments and the same roles as their male counterparts. These changes will allow them to accomplish even more.”
For Sgt. 1st Class Witten, who survived the attack on her convoy back in 2003, the lifting of the ban removes the final barrier — the Kevlar ceiling — for women in the military.
“It’s a great opportunity for female soldiers to get out and do what we instill in them,” she said, referring to fundamental weapons and combat training taught at Fort Jackson. “We instill all this in them — why not let them put it out there?”