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Women in combat
Hurdles likely as change occurs
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Retired Lt. Col. W.C. Fowlkes of Henry County said the new role of women in combat should not be viewed as a gender equality issue. (File photo)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The implementation of the military’s plan to open thousands of jobs in combat to women will not happen overnight, and there may be hurdles for soldiers and the Pentagon to overcome to make it happen.

“That’s still a good bit into the future before that’s really in effect,” said Army Maj. Sherri Sharpe of Martinsville. Right now, Pentagon officials are figuring out how to make the transition work “so they don’t make it difficult” on soldiers or their commanders.

Training regimens also may need to be adapted to assure “the right fit, not necessarily by gender but by skills,” she said.

Some people see the move, combined with the repeal of the Army’s old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving in the military, as a way of making the military more inclusive.

However, W.C. Fowlkes of Henry County cautioned against looking at the policy as an issue of social justice.

“I think it probably will be OK, as long as they don’t try to make it a gender equality issue,” he said.

Fowlkes, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Army Reserve and a former Air Force medic, said the point was not to determine whether “he’s better than me or she’s as good as he. The fact is, if there’s a combat situation or a war going on, it’s not a sex-ist thing. It’s about getting the mission done. I’m concerned that equality has no place on the battlefield.”

Concerns about training regimens and the physically taxing nature of most combat jobs have caused some to question whether opening such positions to women is appropriate. Sharpe said most military jobs have training exercises tailored to them to determine whether each soldier can perform the tasks, and Fowlkes said he believed most military jobs could be done by men or women.

“When you’re hauling a .50 caliber (rifle) around and loading it onto a vehicle, which is primarily what infantry soldiers do, you can always find individuals who excel above others in their gender,” said Fowlkes, who also is chairman of the Henry County Republican Party.

For some, however, the grueling nature of basic training is a deal-breaker.

“I think a lot of women don’t realize how physically stressful it is,” Fowlkes said.

Marine Corps training is famous for The Crucible — the final test of a recruit’s training, in which recruits are expected to apply everything they have learned over a 54-hour combat simulation with eight total hours of sleep and two meals of 1,200 calories each. The physical demands include a 48-mile march up steep terrain. Fowlkes said he would not expect the Marine Corps to change its requirements for anyone.

“The Marines aren’t going to cut anyone any slack,” he said.

Field Training exercises during Phase III of Army Basic Training — or “Warrior Phase” — often consist of training for operations such as night and urban combat with scarce access to rations or sleep.

In combat itself, “the proof is going to be in the pudding” in terms of physical strength, Fowlkes said, and the issue may not be whether a woman can “pull her own weight.” Rather, whether a recruit can pull someone else’s would be the issue, he said.

If a solder is injured or incapacitated and a colleague has to pull him or her out of the line of fire, “they’ve got to be able to do it,” he said.

Beyond the obvious physical concerns, Fowlkes said seemingly trivial issues will be worth considering when planning combat personnel from gender-neutral forces.

Fowlkes said he once was cornered in a Humvee for two weeks while serving in Iraq. Confined to the vehicle and the nearby area, he and his company “had to have guards to go the bathroom,” he said. “(If) there’s no bath facility, you’ve got to go where you can.”

The point for a soldier, he said, is “you don’t know from one day to the next. You may be out for a day or two; you may be out for a week or two.”

Fowlkes added that throwing men and women together at “that high adrenaline age” could be difficult because issues can arise from mixing genders.

“It can be a cost situation, too,” because women and men would have to train and live at the same facilities, since it would not be economically feasible for the Army or Marines to create separate facilities for each gender.

“That would defeat the purpose,” he said.

One hot-button issue that may take on a new light with new female military personnel would be the drastic increase in sexual assaults in recent years. A Pentagon report released earlier this year said there had been a 64 percent increase in the number of sexual assaults in the Army between 2006 and 2011.

The Pentagon estimated that only one in six assaults is reported, meaning the 3,191 reported assaults in 2011 represented 19,000 total cases of sexual violence. The Defense Department also said that cases of sexual assault rose 60 percent during the last academic year.

At a recent news conference, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., announced the reintroduction of the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention, or STOP, Act, which aimed to “improve the prevention and response to sexual assault in the military,” according to the bill’s text.

The bill first was introduced in November 2011 but died in committee. In reintroducing the measure, Speier noted that only 191 of the cases the Pentagon reported earned convictions.

The STOP Act intends “to overhaul the way the military handles cases of rape and sexual assault,” according to a release from Speier’s staff. The release argues that military commanders who investigate such cases have no legal expertise and lack the impartiality demanded in civilian courts.

“An independent military office of trained experts should determine how these cases are treated,” Speier said in the release.

The bill seeks to create an “autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office” to be staffed by both civilian and military personnel, the release added.

Fowlkes noted that some cases of sexual assault have involved officers victimizing recruits. “When you do that, you compromise any credibility you have, and that trainee has instant credibility,” he said.

Though assaults are a concern, Fowlkes said an increase in female personnel also could lead to an increase in consensual sexual relationships.

If recruits of different genders are housed together, relationships can happen. “If she winds up pregnant, then you’ve lost two soldiers,” he said.


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