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Women on the Front Lines

It’s been two years since the military opened all combat positions to women. What’s changed—and what hasn’t?

Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

A female Marine on patrol in Afghanistan

As a Marine stationed in Iraq, Corporal Katherine Montalbano didn’t shy away from the action. She fired machine guns, dismantled enemy weapons, and searched people at checkpoints.

Yet unlike the male Marines she served alongside back in 2008, Montalbano wasn’t considered a member of the infantry. Instead, she was a temporary member of a male combat unit. Her group—called the Lionesses—was an early test of how women would handle serving on the front lines.

Montalbano and other female troops earned praise, but it took nearly another decade for the U.S. military to officially let women serve in combat. In January 2016, the Department of Defense opened all combat positions in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard to female troops.

As a Marine stationed in Iraq, Corporal Katherine Montalbano didn’t shy away from the action. She fired machine guns, took enemy weapons apart, and searched people at checkpoints.

Yet unlike the male Marines she served alongside back in 2008, Montalbano wasn’t considered a member of the infantry. Instead, she was a temporary member of a male combat unit. Her group—called the Lionesses—was an early test of how women would handle serving on the front lines.

Montalbano and other female troops earned praise. But it took nearly another decade for the U.S. military to officially let women serve in combat. In January 2016, the Department of Defense opened all combat positions in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard to female troops.

Since then, many women have signed on for once-forbidden roles. They’re driving tanks, throwing grenades, leading troops into battle—and making history. Last spring, a group of women became the first to graduate from U.S. Army infantry training, a milestone two centuries in the making. And in September, the first female Marine completed the Corps’s infantry officer program, one of the toughest in the military.

The progress doesn’t surprise Montalbano.

“I have seen women knock out pull-ups like it was nothing and take down a male during hands-on training,” she says. “We are all trained the same.”

Still, the gender integration of the military is far from complete. Though hundreds of women have earned combat spots, they still make up just a small fraction of U.S. combat troops. Some elite military groups, such as the Navy SEALs, haven’t yet had a woman qualify. And some people continue to argue that women have no place on the battlefield at all.

Since then, many women have signed on for once-forbidden roles. They’re driving tanks, throwing grenades, leading troops into battle—and making history. Last spring, a group of women became the first to graduate from U.S. Army infantry training. It was a milestone two centuries in the making. And in September, the first female Marine completed the Corps’s infantry officer program. It’s one of the toughest training programs in the military.

The progress doesn’t surprise Montalbano.

“I have seen women knock out pull-ups like it was nothing and take down a male during hands-on training,” she says. “We are all trained the same.”

Still, the gender integration of the military is far from complete. Though hundreds of women have earned combat spots, they still make up just a small fraction of U.S. combat troops. Some elite military groups, such as the Navy SEALs, haven’t yet had a woman qualify. And some people continue to argue that women have no place on the battlefield at all.

A Long History of Service

Women have served in the armed forces since the nation’s founding (see timeline, below). They were nurses, cooks, and spies during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), and some women even disguised themselves as men to fight during the Civil War (1861-65). Their roles in the military have continued to evolve since then.

Today more than 210,000 women serve in the U.S. armed forces. They make up more than 16 percent of active-duty troops.

Yet progress for female troops has been slow. Critics, including some top military officials, fought hard for years against allowing women in combat roles. They argued that women would weaken combat units. Others feared that having women on the front lines would distract male soldiers, which could be deadly in battle.

But keeping female troops out of the line of fire became more difficult as modern warfare evolved—especially during the war in Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, which have lacked traditional front lines; firefights can happen anywhere.

As a result, thousands of U.S. servicewomen in Afghanistan and Iraq dodged bullets and roadside bombs for years before they were officially allowed in combat. Nearly 14,000 of them earned military honors for engaging with the enemy. For many Americans, hearing of those female troops’ heroics was a turning point.

Over time, “the issue of women in combat . . . was no longer a question,” Ash Carter, then the U.S. secretary of defense, said in 2016. “Women had seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting, and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” he added.

Women have served in the armed forces since the nation’s founding (see timeline, below). They were nurses, cooks, and spies during the Revolutionary War (1775-83). Some women even disguised themselves as men to fight during the Civil War (1861-65). Their roles in the military have continued to evolve since then.

Today more than 210,000 women serve in the U.S. armed forces. They make up more than 16 percent of active-duty troops.

Yet progress for female troops has been slow. Critics, including some top military officials, fought hard for years against allowing women in combat roles. They argued that women would weaken combat units. Others feared that having women on the front lines would distract male soldiers. They proposed that the distraction could be deadly in battle.

But keeping female troops out of the line of fire became more difficult as modern warfare evolved. It’s been especially challenging during the war in Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Both have lacked traditional front lines, meaning firefights can happen anywhere.

As a result, thousands of U.S. servicewomen in Afghanistan and Iraq dodged bullets and roadside bombs for years before they were officially allowed in combat. Nearly 14,000 of them earned military honors for engaging with the enemy. For many Americans, hearing of those female troops’ heroics was a turning point.

Over time, “the issue of women in combat . . . was no longer a question,” Ash Carter, then the U.S. secretary of defense, said in 2016. “Women had seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting, and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” he added.

‘Just Like Everybody Else’

According to the Congressional Research Service, at least 167 women have been killed in action since 2001. More than 1,000 have been injured.

When the Department of Defense opened combat roles to women, military leaders emphasized that positions would be filled based on ability, not gender. The 18 women who became the first to complete Army infantry training in May 2017 met the same physical requirements as their male counterparts. They hurled grenades 100 feet, marched a dozen miles at a time shouldering heavy packs, and single-handedly dragged a 268-pound dummy across a battlefield.

“They carry what everyone else carries. They walk the same amount of mileage. They push, they pull, they sweat, they bleed just like everybody else,” Sergeant 1st Class Joseph Sapp, a drill sergeant, told the Army Times about his female infantry recruits. 

The first female Marine infantry officer also completed the same grueling 13-week course as male hopefuls. “The significance of her achievement cannot be overstated,” wrote two retired Marines.

But not every woman who tries for a direct combat position succeeds, of course. In the first co-ed Army infantry boot camp, 44 percent of the women who started ended up dropping out. For men, the dropout rate was 20 percent.

According to the Congressional Research Service, at least 167 women have been killed in action since 2001. More than 1,000 have been injured.

When the Department of Defense opened combat roles to women, military leaders emphasized that positions would be filled based on ability, not gender. Eighteen women became the first to complete Army infantry training in May 2017. They met the same physical requirements as their male counterparts. They hurled grenades 100 feet, marched a dozen miles at a time shouldering heavy packs, and single-handedly dragged a 268-pound dummy across a battlefield.

“They carry what everyone else carries. They walk the same amount of mileage. They push, they pull, they sweat, they bleed just like everybody else,” Sergeant 1st Class Joseph Sapp, a drill sergeant, told the Army Times about his female infantry recruits. 

 The first female Marine infantry officer also completed the same grueling 13-week course as male hopefuls. “The significance of her achievement cannot be overstated,” wrote two retired Marines.

But not every woman who tries for a direct combat position succeeds, of course. In the first co-ed Army infantry boot camp, 44 percent of the women who started ended up dropping out. For men, the dropout rate was 20 percent.

Mike Keefe/PoliticalCartoons.com

The disparity is more obvious in special forces training, which is more demanding. In 2015, 19 women were the first to attempt Army Ranger training. Just two finished. And one woman began the long process to become the first female Navy SEAL this summer, only to quit weeks later. (About 75 percent of male SEAL hopefuls drop out.)

For people who oppose allowing women in combat, those stats point to a key argument: Most women simply aren’t as physically strong as most men. 

“Even though some exceptional women might qualify, the fact remains that most women cannot meet physical standards for combat units, while most men can,” says Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness.

A recent Marine Corps study found that all-male squads can climb walls and other obstacles faster, move wounded comrades more efficiently, and shoot more accurately than co-ed squads. Female troops also get injured twice as often as male troops, the study reported.

Marine Captain Katie Petronio experienced the physical demands of the front lines firsthand. She served in combat in Afghanistan. By her fifth month, her legs often buckled, her agility declined, and her response time slowed, she recalled in an essay arguing against allowing women in combat. 

“The rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines,” Petronio wrote.

The disparity is more obvious in special forces training, which is more demanding. In 2015, 19 women were the first to attempt Army Ranger training. Just two finished. And one woman began the long process to become the first female Navy SEAL this summer, only to quit weeks later. About 75 percent of male SEAL hopefuls drop out.

For people who oppose allowing women in combat, those stats point to a key argument: Most women simply aren’t as physically strong as men.

“Even though some exceptional women might qualify, the fact remains that most women cannot meet physical standards for combat units, while most men can,” says Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness.

A recent Marine Corps study found that all-male squads can climb walls and other obstacles faster, move wounded comrades more efficiently, and shoot more accurately than co-ed squads. Female troops also get injured twice as often as male troops, the study reported. 

Marine Captain Katie Petronio experienced the physical demands of the front lines firsthand. She served in combat in Afghanistan. By her fifth month, her legs often buckled, her agility declined, and her response time slowed. She recalled her experiences in an essay arguing against allowing women in combat.

“The rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines,” Petronio wrote.

Moving in the Right Direction

Physical challenges aren’t the only issues female troops face. Even with all combat roles open, the battlefield is not even, some troops say. One example: Most body armor and helmets are designed for men and not always a good fit for women’s bodies.

Military leaders say they’re aware of the challenges and are working to adapt. The Marine Corps, for example, has agreed to integrate all parts of its boot camp training so that men and women participate together by as early as next spring. The branch—which has the lowest percentage of women—aims to have women make up at least 10 percent of its forces by 2019. Other branches are stepping up female recruitment as well.

Physical challenges aren’t the only issues female troops face. Even with all combat roles open, the battlefield is not even, some troops say. One example: Most body armor and helmets are designed for men and not always a good fit for women’s bodies. 

Military leaders say they’re aware of the challenges and are working to adapt. The Marine Corps, for example, has agreed to integrate all parts of its boot camp training. The move will allow men and women to participate together by as early as next spring. The branch has the lowest percentage of women. It aims to have women make up at least 10 percent of its forces by 2019. Other branches are stepping up female recruitment as well.

How many women will meet the physical standards for combat?

The more women who move into combat positions, the more others will follow, military experts predict. And holding those jobs may offer a faster path to leadership positions. Serving in combat has historically been critical to career advancement in the military, and women have argued that the combat ban had long stopped them from competing with men for top spots.

Montalbano, for one, remains optimistic that women’s role in the military—and in direct combat—will continue to grow. “Baby steps have turned into great leaps,” she says. “We have come a long way.”

The more women who move into combat positions, the more others will follow, military experts predict. And holding those jobs may offer a faster path to leadership positions. Serving in combat has historically been critical to career advancement in the military. Women have argued that the combat ban had long stopped them from competing with men for top spots. 

Montalbano, for one, remains optimistic that women’s role in the military—and in direct combat—will continue to grow. “Baby steps have turned into great leaps,” she says. 

“We have come a long way.”

Timeline: Women in the Military

Granger, NYC/The Granger Collection

1861-65: The Civil War

Hundreds of women disguise themselves as men to fight for the Union or the Confederacy. Many more serve as nurses.

Hundreds of women disguise themselves as men to fight for the Union or the Confederacy. Many more serve as nurses.

SOTK2011/Alamy Stock Photo

1917-18: World War I

Female telephone operators serve overseas with the Army, and 10,000 nurses are stationed near the front in Europe.

Female telephone operators serve overseas with the Army, and 10,000 nurses are stationed near the front in Europe.

Granger, NYC/The Granger Collection

1941-45: World War II

More than 150,000 women enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, where they work temporarily in noncombat jobs, such as repairing aircraft.

More than 150,000 women enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, where they work temporarily in noncombat jobs, such as repairing aircraft.

1948: 2 Percent Rule

The women’s divisions become permanent, but women aren’t allowed to exceed 2 percent of any branch. The cap is lifted in 1967.

The women’s divisions become permanent, but women aren’t allowed to exceed 2 percent of any branch. The cap is lifted in 1967.

1976: Military Academies

Women are allowed into all U.S. service academies, including West Point.

Women are allowed into all U.S. service academies, including West Point.

1988: The Risk Rule

The Risk Rule excludes women from military assignments in which they risk exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture.

The Risk Rule excludes women from military assignments in which they risk exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture.

1990-91: Persian Gulf War

The 40,000 women deployed to the Gulf do every kind of military job—except direct combat; 15 women die in the conflict.  

The 40,000 women deployed to the Gulf do every kind of military job—except direct combat; 15 women die in the conflict.  

1994: A Broader Role

The Risk Rule is lifted, allowing women into all positions for which they qualify—except in units whose primary mission is combat.

The Risk Rule is lifted, allowing women into all positions for which they qualify—except in units whose primary mission is combat.

Gervasio Sanchez/AP Images

Iraq, 2004: A female soldier during an attack in Najaf

2001-18: Afghanistan & Iraq

The wars in Afghanistan (2001-now) and Iraq (2003-11) are the first in which tens of thousands of military women live and fight alongside men for prolonged periods.

The wars in Afghanistan (2001-now) and Iraq (2003-11) are the first in which tens of thousands of military women live and fight alongside men for prolonged periods.

U.S. Army via Getty Images

Army Ranger training at Fort Benning, Georgia

2016: Women in Combat

All branches of the military officially open all combat positions to female troops who qualify.

All branches of the military officially open all combat positions to female troops who qualify.

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