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Women in combat
Sharpe: Skills more critical than gender
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Sherri Sharpe, who grew up in Martinsville, is shown in a June 30, 2002, file photo when she was a Chinook pilot operating in Afghanistan. Today she is an Army major. Reflecting on the approaching changes for women taking combat roles in the military, she said the focus in any military activity is on the mission rather than the soldier who approaches it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

As the deadline nears for the Army and Marine Corps to present their plans to open more than 230,000 combat jobs to women, the debate is shifting from a theoretical discussion to a practical one.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially lifted a federal ban on female service members in combat roles Jan. 23. The Army and Marines, which employ the vast majority of U.S. ground forces, are expected to present plans to open combat jobs to women by May 15, Panetta said after making the announcement. Full integration is expected to be complete by Jan. 1, 2016.

The move was met with applause from many women’s rights activists. Others see it as taking the emphasis away from gender rather than focusing on it.

Army Maj. Sherri Sharpe, who grew up in Martinsville, said the focus in any military activity is on the mission rather than the soldier who approaches it.

“The intent in the future is not to get the right gender for the job, but the right skills for the job,” she said.

W.C. Fowlkes of Henry County, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and an ex-Air Force medic, said soldiers aim to get the job done regardless of gender.

“Whether you’re a man or woman, it’s a professional position,” said Fowlkes, who also is chairman of the Henry County Republican Party.

Despite the headlines made by the announcement that women would be able to serve in combat roles, Sharpe, who has seen her fair share of combat as a helicopter pilot, said the removal of the ban will level the playing field for career soldiers.

“The previous policy stated there were certain operational specialties that were restricted to women” in the infantry, she said. Jobs in field artillery, armored divisions and combat engineering have become more available to women over the past decade, she said, but women “haven’t been able to do it across the board.”

Female soldiers who held certain titles have worked with different groups but haven’t been given title to reflect it, she added. “They may have for all intents and purposes been doing the same job as the man next to them” but had different titles and “filling a need for a particular reason.”

Though there will be new opportunities for women in combat, Sharpe pointed out that women have been filling a variety of roles in fighting situations for years.

“There’s not a clear-cut line” between jobs women can and can’t do in combat divisions, she said. “To say that women weren’t on the front line for the last 10 years would be a misnomer.”

Especially during the past decade of activity in Iraq and Afghanistan when discerning civilian from military targets can be difficult, performing tasks inherent to infantry soldiers has been part of everyone’s job on the ground, Sharpe said. Gathering intelligence is one example of this.

“We’re helping rebuild the police forces in the communities,” so units have to work with local forces to locate the insurgents in the area, she said. “The MPs (Military Police) aren’t the only ones fulfilling that role, so any unit in a particular area has intel as a secondary mission.”

For that reason, Fowlkes said women have been particularly effective when talking with police, military personnel and civilians to gather information.

While serving in Iraq, Fowlkes found himself in situations where he needed to get information from civilians, and “a lot of women wouldn’t even talk to me,” he said. Female soldiers, however, might be better able to relate to women and children than men, he said.

“A lot of times, women are more analytical than men, and they can analyze a situation better,” Fowlkes said.

Sharpe recently served for a year as an executive officer for an airfield operations battalion supporting Operation New Dawn in Kuwait. While there, she predominantly was an airfield manager.

Once the nature of combat regiments have changed, Fowlkes said he would expect the composition of field command to follow suit, but he expects it will take some time before more women reach leadership roles.

“If you don’t have as much combat experience” it’s harder to get a promotion, he said.

Though the military branches have to report back to Pentagon officials with their plans on how to open more combat jobs to women by May 15, Sharpe said the transition into those roles will be gradual.

“Things like this take time,” she said.

When women were integrated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., or the Citadel, “there were clearly cases where they did it right, and clearly cases where they set them up for failure,” Sharpe said. “The goal of this integration is going to be to “put everyone in a position to be successful.”

Fowlkes said he is confident the integration will work.

“There’s (going to be) a transition period,” he said. “If it were handled properly, I don’t think it would be that big a deal.”

Fowlkes is not sure if opening 230,000 jobs to women will cause a massive increase in the number of female enlistments into the military.

“I’d look for a slight surge” in infantry applicants, “but I’d (expect) to see it level out. I don’t think it’s going to be a massive pass through,” he added.

Sharpe, already a career soldier, said the change in policy on women in combat would have had no effect on her decision to join the military.

“It wouldn’t have influenced how I entered the service. It may have influenced how I progressed,” she said.

She added that aviation units always have been integrated, and “there’s an elite aviation unit that already has begun being integrated.”

Sharpe currently is taking staff officer courses at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. A professional military education requirement, the program is designed to prepare officers for the next five to six years of their careers. Sharpe described it as transitioning from “being a tactical leader to an operational leader.”

After graduating at Fort Leavenworth in June, she said she has asked to be assigned to the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“That’s about as close to Martinsville as I can get,” she said.


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