Army generals discuss their views on whether to allow women in combat

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Sgt. Diana Garcia, second from left, a member of an Army female engagement team, listens to a briefing before going on a mission with members of the 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan on February 1, 2013.   MCT
Sgt. Diana Garcia, second from left, a member of an Army female engagement team, listens to a briefing before going on a mission with members of the 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan on February 1, 2013. MCT

Army generals discuss their views on whether to allow women in combat

by: Chuck Williams | .
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (TNS) | .
published: September 21, 2015

As the Army prepares to make its recommendation to the Secretary of Defense about opening all combat positions to women, many of the organization's top generals were speaking from the same playbook last week.

It's about standards -- not gender -- they said while at Fort Benning for the Maneuver Warfighter Conference, three days of conversation devoted annually to combat and readiness.

Those remarks come a month after two officers -- Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver -- became the first women to successfully complete Ranger School, the Army's most elite combat training course, which was previously closed to women until April of this year.

Gen. David Perkins, in charge of the Training and Doctrine Command, has been heavily involved in the Army's gender integration study that was completed in advance of any recommendation. Perkins was not backing down from the gender integration discussion during his Tuesday address.

"Anyone going to ask about gender integration?" he inquired of the mostly male soldiers in McGinnis-Wickam Hall.

He then took nearly 15 minutes to outline how the Army had gotten to this point on the sometimes divisive issue.

The decision to open combat positions was made in January 2013 by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. After more than a year of study, Panetta ordered each of the military services to expand all of its positions to women -- or provide reasons why certain jobs should remain exclusively male.

The Army has been deliberate in its approach to Panetta's order. Secretary of the Army John McHugh is likely to have his recommendations to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter next week, ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline. There will also be a separate recommendation on Special Forces positions from Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Special Operations Command.

The Army could request exceptions for certain jobs, which would require a justification, or it could request no exceptions and open all the combat jobs previously closed to women.

Last week at Fort Benning, Votel did not say what the recommendation would be.

"I will tell you from an SOF (Special Operations Force) standpoint, from a SOCOM (Special Operations Command) standpoint, we value people," Votel said. "People are our most important resource. We are an organization that the nation expects to be able to go out and work in a variety of different areas with a variety of different people -- and so I would make the argument that diversity is extraordinarily important to us."

It is about standards, Votel said.

"I have talked to a range of people both in and out of the military -- particularly those that are in, and those in the SOF community -- the one thing they constantly emphasize to me is that if we do this we have to ensure that we maintain our very high standards," Votel said. "No female, no male, no one wants to be able to get into an organization having not met the standard. It will be imperative that we do that."

Deliberate approach

Perkins, in charge of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, discussed the process that the Army undertook during the gender integration study. Part of that was creating a physical demands study for all Army combat positions.

"Our criteria was it had to be quantifiable, qualifiable and legally defensible," Perkins said.

That came down to standards, Perkins said.

"My tribe is infantry/armor," he said. "Talk to folks there and say, 'What do you think about women in combat?' The first statement is, 'I don't know, we'll see, but definitely do not change the standards.'"

That leads Perkins to ask a followup question.

"'My next question is what is the standard? ... So, what is the standard to be in the infantry, armor or artillery right now?" he asked. "Pretty much the standard to be in the Army. You have to pass a PT test, height, weight. ...

"What we did for two years is we exhaustively went out to every MOS (military occupational specialty) closed to women and came up with all the operational tasks you have to do in combat. Put on ruck sack, 110 pounds, 12 miles. Went to folks in Afghanistan we had to relate it to a combat standard and said, 'What is your average load?' For artillery units, we tried to find the most demanding physical thing ... rate of loading of a machine gun, extracting a wounded soldier out of a combat vehicle."

A lot of research went into those standards, Perkins said.

"Since we design our combat vehicles for the 90th percentile male, that is the 271-pound male," Perkins said. "You have to drag their body 45 feet in 30 seconds. We have never had that standard that you had to do that before you could sign and come into the Army."

'Valid standard'

All of the generals who spoke at the Warfighter Conference were careful not to get ahead of the recommendation that will come next week. But some, like Lt. Gen. Bob Brown, responsible for Army leadership development and currently commanding general of the United States Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, are willing to share their opinion. Brown was the former commanding general of Fort Benning and was charged with pulling the infantry and armor schools into the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

"I go back a long time on the gender integration," Brown said. "...I have three daughters. My oldest daughter is a senior captain, teaching at West Point, and she will be a major soon. Commanded a company, deployed twice, married to a major who deployed three times."

For Brown it is about standards.

"I have always felt that we should have a valid standard, one standard as Gen. Perkins described," Brown said.

And that hasn't always been the case.

"Surprisingly, when I was here in the Maneuver Center, we didn't have a valid standard for each MOS," Brown said. "We kind of had good ol' boy 'it's a road march at this speed.' 'Why?' 'Well, we don't know.' Now, we have a valid standard. We methodically went through it. So if you have one valid standard that can be proven that you need to do that for that military occupation or speciality. ..."

And if you meet the standard?

"Anybody who meets that standard should be able to serve," Brown said. "No question. I would think the younger generation will almost laugh at the older folks: 'What don't you get about it?' I have served with many women in combat. They are as much in harm's way as anybody. My daughter, she was one of the first intelligence officers in an infantry battalion deployed, a position previously closed to women."

That is just the point, said Sue Fulton, chairwoman of the U.S. Military Academy Board of Visitors, a West Point oversight board that reports to President Barack Obama.

"Women have demonstrated that, with the right training, they can perform even in the most physically punishing infantry jobs," Fulton said. "I expect that the service secretaries will look at the available data and conclude that there is no reason to exclude qualified women from any military job."

The Navy and Marines

The commander of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, admits that there are some in the Army who might have an issue with some positions being fully opened.

"I think it is about standards," Townsend said. "I think there are a lot of people out there that have some discomfort. I had to admit I had some discomfort when we started this process. The more I think about it, the more I believe in the standard."

And the impact of those standards will cut both ways, Townsend said.

"If we go to that, there will probably be some male soldiers in the infantry today that don't measure up, don't qualify to be the infantry," Townsend said. "That's OK with me. It's also OK with me if there are female soldiers who qualify. Also, I see there will be female leaders who rise to leadership positions in the infantry. It doesn't trouble me as long as we have one standard, and everyone meets that standard."

While the Army leaders seem to be sending the same message, that is not the case with the decision that will come from the U.S. Navy about the Marine Corps. A week ago, the Marines released new data that showed men outperformed women in a host of combat-related tasks. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in the wake of the release of that study, that he plans to open all jobs in the sea services to women -- including those in the Marine infantry and Navy SEALs.

"When the services were asked to review opening jobs to women, they took different approaches," Fulton said. "The Army set about this based on objective data, informed by years of gender integration. They allowed women to train locally with men preparing for Ranger School, they screened based on high, gender-neutral, physical fitness standards, and they set objective parameters for success."

Not so with the Marines, said Fulton.

"The Marine Corps -- so backward that they still separate women from men in basic training -- did the equivalent of tossing women into the deep end of the pool and asking them to compete with the swim team," she said. "Now, they're trying to tell everyone that women just can't hack it, and accusing others of political motivation while they themselves are pushing everyone from junior sergeants to senators into the media to defend their all-male infantry."

Brown, who has experience executing delicate decisions, points to the merging of armor and infantry at the Maneuver Center of Excellence as a template.

He was the general charged with pulling the two cultures together.

"When Armor came down here, there was a very good plan in place," Brown said. "When I got here with this complex plan, folks said, 'It's not a big deal, armor is coming.' I said, 'How about if infantry was moving to Fort Knox?' 'Whoa, that would be tough.' 'They are feeling the same way. You've got to welcome them.'"

The merger involved give and take.

"We changed about every course in infantry a little, based on what we learned from armor," Brown said. "And armor changed their course a little based on what they learned from infantry."

That lesson can be applied to integrating combat positions, Brown said.

"So for gender integration, I say the same thing," he said. "We will be a better force for this. Diversity is our strength. The more diverse we are, the better our viewpoint we get in this complex world."

Brown played basketball at Army and sometimes looks at his military world in the same way a coach would.

"As a coach, I would be saying 'Don't be afraid of change,'" Brown said. "Embrace change. Look at how much better we will be from this integration. I have an advantage with three daughters and three granddaughters. I am a better person because of them because they will see things I won't see. Same with force as we integrate. We will get better. We will be much, much better."

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