Pentagon officials lifted a ban this week on women in combat, prompting some quiet “Ooh-rahs” from women Marines while raising questions about what it really means.
There are more than 200,000 U.S. women in uniform at present.
“Women are fighting now; there are a lot of women willing to fight and die for their country,” said U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-Farmville, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and still sees the need for hearings on the policy change before it is fully implemented.
His district includes Cherry Point and other military bases.
The Marine Corps and Army, which has the largest infantry, are supposed to determine most of the changes by mid-May but have until 2016 for some changes to take effect.
“I think this ban came after Desert Storm when a captured woman pilot was treated differently because she was a woman,” Jones said in a phone interview. He said he has visited military hospitals and has seen women soldiers “trying to put a prosthesis on a blown-off leg. I’m not saying I’m opposed to it, just that I want to hear from the participants.”
A news release from his office later in the day, however, said “Jones expressed opposition to the Obama administration’s decision.”
“The Commander-in-Chief should be focused on maintaining our military as the best fighting force in the world, not using it to advance his social agenda,” said Jones in the release. “Having had the privilege of representing one of the largest military districts in the country for many years, I have spoken with numerous Marine officers about this topic. They have all voiced their concern. These are men who have been on the front lines and know the horrors of war. When they have reservations, I listen.”
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., released a statement supporting the change.
“The Pentagon’s decision to allow women to serve in combat roles is a positive step,” Hagan said. “Women will now be able to serve our country in new capacities, and they will be afforded more opportunities for the same career advancement as their male counterparts.
“As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a senator from the state with the third largest military presence in the nation, “I thank all of our service members —male and female, and I am committed to working with the Pentagon to implement this policy.”
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had the endorsement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the change, which many say simply makes official practices already in place for women in thousands of military jobs and gives them the title and combat pay attached.
Hank Gotard, retired 30-year Marine Corps pilot and now Veteran Services Officer in Carteret County, said lifting the ban “is the right thing to do and long overdue. Women have done a fine job of what they are doing and have served with distinction.”
“In the Navy, they have been out there at sea flying EA-6B Prowlers a long time, then got into single seat tactical jets,” he said. There is now a leadership team aboard a carrier led by a woman, and women have been flying helicopters in combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s great the armed forces have stepped forward and done this, become an equal opportunity employer,” Goddard said.
The military is about 15 percent female and has not blocked women from rank and authority — the sergeant major of Cherry Point is presently a woman and a woman has served as commander at Camp Lejeune.
Dawn Mills of Morehead City served in the Air Force as an enlisted traffic management specialist for four years beginning in 1986 and has served another 19 years in the Air Force Reserve and she said she is pleased with the decision.
“Females have been in the middle of combat anyway,” she said. “They volunteer and serve as drivers in convoys that end up getting shot and blown up. Those are not combat career fields but they’re still in the middle of it and still run just as much risk as those in the infantry.”
Mills, who now works at NOAA, said she thinks “women should be able to do every job that men do but if they choose to do it, don’t go over there and get in a situation and use ‘I’m a female’ as an excuse.”
Former Cherry Point Public Affairs Officer Lt. Col. Aisha Bakkar, now stationed in Guam at Marine Forces Pacific-Forward, would agree.
Featured in a Guam Business magazine January-February edition profile, Bakkar shared that when she went to enlist more than 20 years ago the recruiter scoffed, telling her she was “too feminine.”
Bakkar told the reporter she remembers telling him, “I’ll show you otherwise” and she went to boot camp and took the training without complaining.
“I never used that femininity to try to make things easier for myself or to get out of the physical training,” she said. “As long as you give your 100 percent and as long as you’re not asking for special treatment, then they respect you.”
Officials at Marine Corps bases at Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune responding Thursday to questions about what changes could come from the lift of the ban said they are unable to conduct local interviews at this time.
In an effort to assist in this story, both public information offices provided a statement from Headquarters Marine Corps:
“The Commandant and the entire Marine Corps are dedicated to maintaining the highest levels of combat readiness and capitalizing upon every opportunity to enhance our warfighting capabilities and the contributions of every Marine; it’s simply the right thing to do.
“Our ongoing deliberate, measured and responsible approach to validate occupational performance standards for all Marines is consistent with (the Secretary of Defense’s) decision to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women.
“As our Corps moves forward with this process, our focus will remain on combat readiness and generating combat-ready units while simultaneously ensuring maximum success for every Marine. The talent pool from which we select our finest warfighters will consist of all qualified individuals, regardless of gender.”