Saturday, January 26, 2013

Women in Combat

I was in the Army in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected President. That dates me, I know. One of the discussion we had had, with our officers, was a political movement, even before then, that women may be allowed in Combat Arms units, including the one I was in. I was a Combat Engineer, and that job was rough. Long marches with heavy packs, long runs, and quite often, exceedingly difficult physical activity.

An example may be in order. One of the jobs of the engineers is to build a fence out of concertina wire. The most common is called a Triple Standard Concertina Fence. For that fence, you drive a metal stake called a picket into the ground every five meters, or paces. This driving is not done with a sledge hammer, it is done with a device called a picket pounder. The picket pounder is locally manufactured. In other words, welded together by your local mechanics. It is usually a steel pipe, with steel tubes attached as handles, and a thick steel plate welded at one end. Ours weighed about forty pounds. You slipped this over the end of the picket your partner was holding, and then rapidly, and with great force slid it up and then powered it down. The pounder drove the picket into the ground. In normal dirt, like in the forest of Fort Bragg, you could do this with three or four hard blows. Then you lifted this forty pound item, held it on your helmet like people hold baskets in third world countries, and moved to the next picket. After the second picket, your shoulders burned, and after five or six, you were breathing very hard. It was a lot of work, and it required pure upper body strength to do it. You are talking about hundreds of pickets in some fences. Everyone is working hard, lifting weight, toghether, and fast. Because time is a precious commodity in a combat arms unit. You are training for when you're doing the task in combat. And in combat, the enemy is not going to wait until you are finished to attack.

This is of course, but one example of the tasks that exist in those combat arms units. Building bridges, another Engineer task, is done by hand, with teams carrying items weighing hundreds of pounds.

This is a Canadian Engineer team building a bridge that I have worked on more than once. It is heavy, hard, and often exhausting work.

Am I saying that women can't do that? Not at all. But the truth is that perhaps one in six, or even one in ten men can do it. You have to like the feeling of your joints straining. You have to enjoy the pain to do these jobs well, and safely. If you drop your portion of the load, your mates will have to pick up your share, chances are they'll be unable to hold it, and someone will possibly lose a foot or hand to the sudden dropping of the load.

Now, sometimes you have to breach that wire fence. If you have time, you crawl up to it and cut it with a wire. If you have the right equipment, you use explosives to blow the wire away and create a safe path. But sometimes, you have to body breech the wire. That means you throw yourself onto the wire, creating a bridge with your own body for your mates to run across. No, the low man on the totem pole does not get picked automatically. You have to want to do it, you may need several breaches to get the infantry into the objective. Everyone has to be willing, and everyone will do it in training, because it teaches you that sacrafice for the group is your task, and your mission. Now your clothes help some. But you're going to be stuck, and cut up by the concertina. Razor wire would probably cut you to pieces, and you may die before your friends can get you out of the wire.

I still have a smattering of small light colored speckles that are the remanants of scars I picked up doing things like that. I've got those light discolorations on my hands, from working with the wire, and getting cut up by things that are not as user friendly as one might wish.

I know what you're thinking. Why mention this? Because you have two choices. You can maintain the current physical standards, which means that any women who go into those units will have to meet or exceed the same physical and psychological requirements that men meet. Do I think they can do it? Absolutely some women can do it. I was re classed and spent some time in a training unit. There, as a Sergeant, a female soldier took the Physical Training Test the same day I did. She not only met the male requirements in Push Ups, and Sit Ups. She beat me in the run by more than three minutes. Was this shocking to me? Not at all. I'd already met women who were exceptionally athletic and able to do more of some tasks than I was. My point to this is not that she was the norm, she was not the norm. The norm of female soldiers was still straggling in when I had stretched out after the run. This PFC was exceptional, and she would have done well in a Combat Arms unit. She was one woman out of five hundred military women.

If you maintain the current physical standards, than one woman out of a hundred will qualify for Combat Arms. Now the problem is that you will see people claiming discrimination, and it isn't fair that they are held to the same standard as men when their bodies are biologically different not by choice, but by nature. To a certain extent, that is true. There are different physical standards for women in recognizing this truth. Age also slows people down, so the requirement is adjusted for age, and gender for the Army. But we are talking about Combat Arms. There isn't a work around to help the women in Combat. There isn't a lower wall on the obstacle course. The bridge section isn't going to be marked female carry and be made lighter. It is heavy because it must hold a tank up when a tank drives across it.

But, it is also true that every single person in that unit must pull their weight, and you can't have people who are sent off to do security at every single tasking. That creates resentment, and anger among those who are pulling their weight. If someone is injured, temporarily unable, the troops understand. If that person is not injured, and is just unable, or unwilling. The troops get surly, and resentful. One of the things that makes a unit work is everyone doing the same things together.

I can't imagine how the crew of a submarine will work. You are talking about a hundred people using five bathrooms. Living inches away from their shipmates. Sitting hip to hip on a bench to eat meals. The first woman in that situation, using your average modern woman, will be screaming sexual harassment within three days. It will take a very special woman, one in a thousand military women, to tolerate that environment.

So what do I think should be the case? I think the standards must be maintained. I always have thought that. I think some situations should be unisex, merely because of the close living arrangements. An all female submarine crew would not have the same issues a mixed crew living in 18 inches would have. Yes, you read that right. The average crewman, if he gets his own bunk, some have to share. Those crew members get 18 inches of space between the top of their bunk, and the bottom of the one above. Space is just too precious on a submarine to waste it.

I could never be a submariner. The close proximity of other people all the time would get on my nerves, and drive me mad. A ship would be bad enough, but on a submarine you're never alone. Someone is always two feet away, at the most.

So do I think there are opportunities for women in Combat Arms? Yes I do. I think that a few women will exceed the standards, and more will meet the standards. But I think that those women will be, much like the men, the exceptions to the term average soldier.


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