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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

During the past 10 years, the role of women has changed in the United States military.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): This will be the first generation of veterans where large segments of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat.

INSKEEP: That's Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Pentagon prohibits women from serving in combat units, and yet record numbers of women are on the front lines.

Mr. MULLEN: And I know what the law says and I know what it requires, but I'd be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today or who's served in Iraq over the last few years did so without facing the same risks of their male counterparts.

INSKEEP: So this week we're going to look at what it means to be a woman in uniform today - how that's changed over the generations and whether there's more change coming soon. NPR's Rachel Martin is covering this story. Welcome to the program once again.

RACHEL MARTIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: We heard Mike Mullen say he knows what the law says. What does reality say in Iraq and Afghanistan?

MARTIN: Reality says that there are no front lines in these wars. In the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone in uniform can get caught up in direct ground combat. So the policy - exactly what you said - does not reflect reality on the ground. Let me give you an example.

I talked recently with an Iraq veteran. Her name is Kayla Williams. And she was a sergeant in the Army. Her unit was part of that initial U.S. force that rolled across Iraq in the invasion in 2003. She's out of the military now, she lives near Washington, D.C., and a couple weeks ago we sat down at her kitchen table and she showed me some photos of that time in Iraq. Here she is describing one in particular. Take a listen.

Ms. KAYLA WILLIAMS (Iraq War Veteran): So this is the side of the mountain -the first site - and that cot, that is where I slept for six weeks, on that cot under the open sky.

MARTIN: Her team was assigned to this very remote outpost and they were gathering intelligence - listening to insurgents' cell phone conversations, other sources of intel. And this is one of the jobs, Steve, where women aren't supposed to be in direct combat, but they're very exposed in these jobs. And the policy says women can't be assigned to direct ground combat units but they can be attached as support to these kind of units.

INSKEEP: Which, when the unit is small, that puts them in an exposed position, basically.

MARTIN: Exactly. Her outpost was in the Kurdish part of Iraq. That was pretty stable at the time. But she also ran foot patrols in Baghdad, and when her unit was in Mosul, they took direct fire from mortar and rocket attacks. So leaving her very exposed.

INSKEEP: So if that's the reality, and even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledges the reality, what is the Pentagon doing about this?

MARTIN: Frankly, nothing at this point. But Congress has seen this as an issue and they set up an official commission to look into it made up of high ranking former and current military officials. They've been meeting for more than a year now and the debate has gotten pretty intense at times.

This is retired Marine Lieutenant General Frank Petersen we're going to hear. He's a member of this commission, and here he is asking questions to a panel of military women about this policy. This was at a public forum last year.

Mr. FRANK PETERSEN (Retired Lieutenant General, U.S. Marines): Here is my problem. We're talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you would volunteer to live like that?

Ms TAMMY DUCKWORTH (Department of Veteran Affairs): I've lived like that. I've lived out there with the guys and I would do it. It's about the job.

MARTIN: That was Tammy Duckworth responding there. She was an Apache helicopter pilot in Iraq, lost both of her legs in combat. Now she's the number two at the Department of Veterans Affairs and she was one of a number of women who spoke to that commission. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The helicopters piloted by Tammy Duckworth were Black Hawks, not Apaches.]

INSKEEP: And when you hear Tammy Duckworth say I've lived that, that's a powerful statement. So that would be one argument for changing the military's policy: acknowledging what already happens. What other arguments are there?

MARTIN: A big one is promotion, Steve. The U.S. military recently commissioned its first female four-star general - this was a very big deal. Anne Dunwoody is her name. And she rose through the ranks in logistics, not through artillery or infantry command positions. That's important, because those are the jobs, if you can tick that box that says I led troops in combat, that's what gets you on the fast track to big promotions. Women can't have those jobs so it puts them at a disadvantage.

INSKEEP: So women say they're already in harm's way, they want the benefit of a promotion for having been in harm's way. But what's the argument against formally allowing women to serve in combat?

MARTIN: It's really an issue of should they be doing this, and there are a whole range of issues people have and point to. Pregnancy concerns: What if a woman in a combat unit gets pregnant and then can't deploy when her unit needs her? Another big issue is privacy: perpetual concerns about how men and women can undress and carry out bodily functions in really tight, intimate living conditions. And then there's unit cohesion: Does having a woman around in some way create distractions in a unit?

INSKEEP: Aren't there already these problems if women are out in these small units in remote places in Iraq and Afghanistan?

MARTIN: There are, but the issue is whether or not to make the systemic change - change the policy and acknowledge that. That's really what we're talking about.

INSKEEP: OK.

MARTIN: And Kayla Williams - remember, this was the Army intel officer I spoke with - she spends a lot of time thinking about this issue of unit cohesion -and she describes in her unit the utter boredom that infected them for days on end as they waited to pick up intelligence. And there was nothing to do, nothing to distract them, so they made up ways to kill time. Take a listen.

Ms. WILLIAMS: They played a game of throwing rocks at each other's pants to try to get the rocks through the holes that had developed in the crotches of all their pants, and later they started throwing rocks at my boobs as well as part of this game. So is that harassing me or including me? Treating me the way they were treating one another?

MARTIN: What did you think?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I thought I was being included and treated as one of the guys, but it's never that simple.

MARTIN: In fact, Steve, sometimes it got really complicated.

Ms. WILLIAMS: They would include me in their camaraderie, but at the same time sometimes it would slip over a line and they would, you know, want to see my boobs or - it was just tricky. Later I came to think that if I wanted to avoid things going in a direction I wasn't comfortable with, I had to keep that line much crisper.

INSKEEP: Now we're moving up to the question of sexual harassment.

MARTIN: Most definitely, and this is something the Pentagon says it's taking very seriously. Another issue that critics point to is why this policy should be rolled back. You get men and women in this situation, bad things are going to happen.

Just last week, a group of veterans and active duty service members actually sued the Pentagon, saying some military commanders aren't doing enough to prosecute sexual assault cases.

But as Kayla Williams pointed out to me, one source of the sexual assault problem is that women actually aren't seen as equals by other troops.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I believe that the combat exclusion actually exacerbates gender tensions and problems within the military because the fact that women can't be in combat arms jobs allows us to be portrayed as less than fully soldiers.

MARTIN: So now, Steve, we're back to the Pentagon's combat exclusion policy. Should women be allowed to serve in these ground combat units or not? That military commission we talked about, they're expected to hand down a recommendation next month to Congress that says this policy should be changed.

MARTIN: NPR's Rachel Martin is covering this story, and we want to hear what you have to say about all this. If you want to discuss it more, go to NPR's Facebook page and we'll respond to some of your questions and comments later in the week.

Our coverage continues here on MORNING EDITION tomorrow when we'll hear the story of a woman who was awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat - the first woman since World War II to get that honor.

Sergeant LEIGH ANN HESTER: I can't tell you how many times that, you know, our squad got blown up. I mean, it's more than I can count, probably. I mean, it was nothing for us to get shot at, you know, every other day or more.

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INSKEEP: That's coming up tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. And you can trace the history of women on the front lines today at NPR.org.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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