Writer: Ending Ban On Women In Combat Is Long Overdue

Debate over the American military's controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, banning gay and lesbian service members from serving openly has prompted one commentator to call for another military policy to be changed: the ban on women serving in combat. Host Lynn Neary talks with Catherine Ross who is a former Army Reservist who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. She recently wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times, calling for an end to banning women from combat posts.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Military and political leaders are searching for a resolution on the controversial dont ask, dont tell policy that prevents gay people from serving openly in the military. President Obama called for a repeal of the law in his State of the Union speech in January.

The debate over that policy has prompted some observers to rethink another exclusionary policy in the U.S. Armed Forces, and asked if its time to allow women in combat.

Catherine Ross is among those who believe it is. She served in the Army Reserves for eight years, including deployments in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. She explained her position on women in combat in a recent, online commentary for The New York Times. And Catherine Ross joins us now from her home in Columbus, Georgia. Welcome to the program, Catherine.

Ms. CATHERINE ROSS (Former Army Reservist): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Now, in that commentary you argued that, quote: The militarys policy on barring women from combat doesnt match reality, unquote. What did you mean by that?

Ms. ROSS: Well, I mean, from what I experienced and from what some of my fellow female soldiers experienced, we are already being attached to ground combat units. Were already in combat zones. Were already being engaged in, you know, direct contact with the enemy. So for me, the reality is that females are already in combat; were already engaged in it. It doesnt match the policy, though, because the policy says, you know, no women in combat. by that?

NEARY: Well, maybe you can explain that by explaining what you did. You were a civil affairs sergeant in Iraq. What were your duties, and how were they essentially combat duties?

Ms. ROSS: Well, I was part of a four-person team. And my team was attached to an infantry battalion. And right there, were kind of bending the rules because females, again, are not supposed to be found at the battalion levels, a ground-combat unit. But we were attached to this battalion, and we went everywhere that they did. My team had to go outside the wire - thats what we say when we have to leave our operating bases and go to say, a school or a medical facility to conduct an assessment.

You know, we had to go outside the wire pretty much every day that we were there. And every day that you leave the wire, youre at risk for IEDs, small-arms fires, rocket-propelled grenades.

So, you face these dangers as same as the infantry did. And I told security I always wanted to be able to pull my own weight. You know, I never wanted to be, you know, like this princess being ferried around. I face the same risks, you know, and I pulled some of the same duties. When were at our operating base, I pulled guard just like all the other infantrymen.

NEARY: So, of course, you were armed and you could have responded, if you needed to...

Ms. ROSS: Exactly.

NEARY: ...with your weapon.

Ms. ROSS: Right.

NEARY: ...which essentially feels, to you, like combat duty, I would say.

Ms. ROSS: Right. I mean, it doesnt encompass all. I mean, I wasnt trained to be an infantryman. That wasnt my job. My job was to deal with civilians. And when a lot of my job was formulated, it was kind of formulated to happen after combat had taken place. But you know, the way the war is right now, its not really possible. Everything just kind of happens all at once.

NEARY: Now, women make up just 14 percent of the Army. Do you have any idea how many women really are interested in combat positions?

Ms. ROSS: You know, to be honest, I dont know. Ive definitely spoken with some women who are interested and, you know, they feel like theres this opportunity thats being kept from them. I can say for me personally, I wouldnt necessarily be jumping up and down to be an infantryman just because thats not the job that interests me. My interest was more with dealing with civilians. For me, this is an issue of principle, just the idea that women are being kept from certain jobs just based on the fact that theyre women. But I do think that there are definitely women out there. I just I wouldnt be able to put a number on it, though.

NEARY: Now, in your piece, you say that you didnt really encounter any problems with your male colleagues. You even had to live in very close quarters with them. But we know that there have been cases of female service members facing harassment - perhaps worse in the field. So, as the military tries to deal with issues of women in the military in non-combat positions, providing them with safe circumstances, are they ready to deal with the whole issue, and the problems that might arise out of women in combat?

Ms. ROSS: Well, I do think so because, you know, I have to say, I mean, Ive worked both in the civilian sector and obviously, in the military. And when I was in the Army, I felt like the Army, out of any of the employers Ive ever had, the Army was the most concerned with sexual harassment and sexual assault. And they are the only ones who would take the time - every couple of months, we would be briefed on the proper procedures on how to deal with any kind of incident. You know, who we were supposed to report to, all the different options that are available to us. You know, if were afraid of going directly to our chain of command, you know, we had other options that we could use - like the inspector general, for instance. I felt like I was very much informed on the issue.

It was reassuring to me. And I mean, I did face some sexual harassment, but it never, you know - I reported it to the chain of command right away before it could get out of hand. And so, it was nipped in the bud right away. I mean, it was taken care of. I felt like I was adequately protected. I was protected the way that I should have been protected.

NEARY: Hmm.

Ms. ROSS: So, I mean, I do think that terrible things do happen, absolutely. But it's not necessarily the norm. And I feel like, you know, having certain amount of media bias towards it kind of gives the impression that females in the Army are nothing but victims. And I just dont think thats the case.

NEARY: Catherine Ross is a former Army reservist who served in Iraq. You can find a link to her New York Times opinion piece on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, and select TELL ME MORE from the program page. Thanks for joining us, Catherine.

Ms. ROSS: Thank you very much.

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