Rep. Duckworth: About Time For Women In Combat

Host Michel Martin looks at the Pentagon's new policy to open combat positions to women with Representative Tammy Duckworth. The Illinois Democrat lost both her legs as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, and currently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up in the program we will have the first of a series of conversations we're having this week about how young people are using social media. We're calling the series Social Me and that will be later in the program.

But first we want to focus on the historic announcement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week, that the military will end the ban on women in combat. The change potentially opens up more than 200,000 jobs to women, many of then in infantry positions. But these women, should they be selected for these posts, will not be the first women to serve on the front lines.

Take, for example, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. She is a former Army National Guard helicopter pilot. She lost both of her legs when she served in Iraq, but she still serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army National Guard. Now she's a Democrat representing Illinois's eighth district and she's with us now from her home office to talk about what these changes might mean.

Congresswoman Duckworth, first of all, let me say congratulations on your election and, of course, thank you for your service.

REPRESENTATIVE TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Thank you, Michel. It's wonderful to be on.

MARTIN: So what was your reaction when you heard the Pentagon announcement?

DUCKWORTH: My reaction was it's about time. That finally Pentagon policy is catching up with the reality of what's happening on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Why do you think the announcement came when it did?

DUCKWORTH: I think that is a decision that's been a long time in the making, Michel. I think that a couple of key things happened. One, we've been at war for 10 years where women have been directly engaged in combat, and thousands of women have received a combat action badge - which is only awarded when you engage in direct fire with the enemy.

So, I mean, we now have 10 years of that under our belt. We've also had a change in the Pentagon leadership. I think that the top leaders in the Pentagon now are folks who have served since the '70s when women became fully integrated in the army. For example, the WAC was fully integrated in the mid-1970s.

So I think that's a combination of things and I think it's a president whose been dedicated to equal rights in all ways, and equal work and equal pay for women. And I think this is just another step in what this president wants to do in terms of making sure that there's equality in our culture.

MARTIN: Do you mind reminding us of, first of all, why you wanted to serve and why you wanted to serve as a helicopter pilot?

DUCKWORTH: Sure, Michel. Well, I just wanted to give something back and I didn't know how I was going to serve my nation. And when I was in graduate school, actually, I became a second lieutenant while pursuing a PhD. So a little bit later in life. You know, I took some ROTC courses, fell in love with the discipline, the leadership opportunities and decided I would, you know, try for my commission.

As far as aviation was concerned, in 1993 was when they lifted the restriction on women serving in combat. And since that was the only combat job available to women, I signed up for it. Not because I wanted to go into combat but for me it was a sense of fairness. I just felt like if I wanted equal pay for equal work, I should take equal risk as the men to my left and to my right.

MARTIN: You know, to that point, as you might imagine, we, along with, you know, every other media outlet and of course a lot of any other vehicle for discussion, really, where people who are interested in this issue, have been getting a lot of comments since the announcement was made.

And many of the women say - many of the women veterans say exactly what you said at the outset of our conversation. You said it's about time. I mean, it kind of recognizes the reality of warfare now. Anyway, many women, like yourself, are serving, you know, taking hostile fire and making the sacrifice as you did.

But we got some other interesting comments. And I just want to read - I'll just play one of them, actually. This is a woman named Elizabeth Cimaglio. She is from Ohio. She started in the U.S. Army in March of 1988 and retired last July. She retired at the rank of Sergeant First Class. And I'll just play her comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMENT)

SERGEANT FIRST CLASS ELIZABETH CIMAGLIO: The fact of the matter is, is it's still a man's army. Some of those men are just not going to allow those women to lead appropriately. And when lives are on the line, that's what concerns me. When you're looking at the toll of war and is it worth the chance and risk, no, I just don't believe it is.

And, you know, there's a high sexual assault rate going on in the military. And when you start adding in women in combat arms and the stressors of war, it doesn't make a good mix.

MARTIN: Unlike some people who, you know, people we're hearing from who say that women aren't capable of serving in these positions or it's just too distracting for the men, she's making, you know, first of all a readiness argument. That some of these men just will not be able to deal with having women in leadership positions or they just can't accept it. And it will be a force readiness issue.

And she's also commenting on something which I think people all know to be true, which is that there is a sexual assault issue.

DUCKWORTH: Right. So let's deal with those two arguments separately, Michel. First off, women are fantastic leaders. And the same thing was said of women, you know, going into aviation, for example. And I was a leader in aviation. I was a company commander. And did I get a little bit of harassing when it first started? And, you know, they called me the mommy company commander.

But this bottom line is, we were at number one in readiness in our battalion and performance certainly outstrips and will, you know, out-argue any contradictory, you know, positions. And basically, do it based on your job performance. Lots of women are great leaders and lots of men are great leaders too.

I actually think that the military and our nation will benefit when we have more women at the very highest positions. And women can't get there right now in the military, not as quickly as men, because they can't hold command of combat army units. And you need that command time of combat forces in order to become, for example, commander of United States Forces in Europe.

So women will never become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if she doesn't have a chance to command a combat division like the first infantry position.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

DUCKWORTH: So this will lift that restriction. And I think as you see more women in combat situations you're going to see that they can certainly perform at the very highest level.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with congresswoman and decorated military pilot Tammy Duckworth. We're talking about the Pentagon's decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat. Are the physical standards going to be adjusted for women?

DUCKWORTH: I think the physical standards should be set for the job. Right now the physical standards are adjusted for two things. One, for gender. There are different standards for men and women, at least in the Army. Some of the other branches are different. And then they're also adjusted for age.

So if you are 30 years old your physical standards are lower than for someone who is 18 years old. So if you want to have one uniform physical standard, then have it. Don't adjust for age and don't adjust for gender. Make it for the job. If the job requires that you have to be able to lift 80 pounds and march 20 miles in a certain amount of time, then set it for the job.

And if you can meet those standards, then great. You get to do the job and it doesn't matter whether you're black, white, male, female, straight or gay.

MARTIN: And what about the sexual assault question? You know, without any comment about how widespread or not widespread this sort of problem is, the fact is this has been a persistent problem which has finally, it seems, gotten the recognition that it deserves. What about that?

DUCKWORTH: Well, military sexual trauma is absolutely an issue. It's not an issue that's tied to this decision, though. It's already existed. I think the military's doing a better job of dealing with it, but I think there's more work that needs to be done. But let's make this clear: Sexual assault is not a female problem. Sexual assault is a problem with predators.

So we cannot blame the women who serve this country in uniform for being assaulted. And to say that we can't allow women to serve in a full range of jobs because they may become victims, is really disgusting to me. Because the problem is in the leadership and the problem is in fixing the predator problem.

I trust in the professionalism of our military to do their jobs and do it well, but we have to certainly focus more on making sure that the military does a better job with sexual assault. And that, to me, is a separate issue from women serving in combat. Also, it ignores the fact that half of the sexual assaults that happen are against men. So we don't even know about those statistics publicly. I mean, it's not - you know, it's known, but it's not something that the public - when people talk about military sexual trauma, you know, people don't think about - oh, this trauma is happening to male troops. And it is, just as much as it's happening to female troops.

It's not about sex. It's about power. It's about one person trying to seize control of another person's body, and that simply is not acceptable - in any situation.

MARTIN: I did want to just raise, kind of as a concluding point, the criticism or the point raised by your fellow congressman, Duncan Hunter. He's a Republican of California. He's also a veteran of the Marines. And he says his question is whether this change will actually make our military better at operating in combat, specifically finding and targeting the enemy. I don't know that that's the only question about better performance in combat. But the overall question is, do you think this makes the military better or not? How do you answer?

DUCKWORTH: I think it will make the military better, Michel. We have an all-volunteer force. That means that 100 percent of the people who serve in our military want to be there, have volunteered to be there and, when you open up a whole new talent pool of potential people to serve in these positions, you've now open up, you know, a lot more potential for some of the highest achieving people to serve.

So, whereas before, for all of these jobs, the talent pool that was available from which they could recruit was just 50 percent of our population. Now, we've doubled the potential pool of recruits who could serve in that position. Not every woman will be able to pass the physical standards for some of these jobs. But frankly, some of the other positions like a tank commander doesn't take a great amount of physical, you know, strength. So a lot of positions will be opened up. We'll have an opportunity to recruit from the very best in our nation, and women will have an opportunity to finally get recognition for the service that they're already performing.

MARTIN: Five years from now, what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having about this?

DUCKWORTH: Just how much - this is a big hoopla about very little. You know, I think we're already having those conversations about ending don't ask, don't tell. It's already a matter of a record that we say, of course, blacks and whites can serve together in integrated units without problems, or that Japanese-Americans can serve, you know, without problems. That was the thought in World War II, that you couldn't integrate the military.

So I think, you know, down the road, we're going to look back in the distance and say, boy, that was a lot of fuss over nothing.

MARTIN: Tammy Duckworth is a former helicopter pilot with the Army National Guard. She still serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard and she's currently representing Illinois' eighth district in the U.S. Congress. And I also want to mention she was also former assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. A busy person.

Tammy Duckworth, thank you once again for your service. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

DUCKWORTH: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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