SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We begin this morning with news of a milestone for the American military. This past week, the Pentagon announced it will formally lift the restrictions on women serving in combat positions, ending a nearly 20-year ban. But women are already on the frontlines. Mary Jennings Hegar is one of those women who served bravely in dangerous places. She's a major in the Air National Guard, but in 2009, she was an Air Force helicopter pilot on her third tour in Afghanistan.
MAJOR MARY JENNINGS HEGAR: One detail that my crew from that day, we kind of tease each other about, is that I was the actually the only person who returned fire that day. The fact is I was engaging the enemy in ground combat. One of the myths is that the combat exclusion policy keeps women out of combat. So, for some reason, the dialogue in the country became: should women be allowed in combat? Women are in combat, in much bigger combat than the situation I just described, which was only 20 minutes. There's women patrolling, there's women in vehicles that hit IEDs, they're, you know, trading fire with the enemy everyday.
SIMON: Were you subsequently blocked from doing something in the armed forces because of your gender?
HEGAR: Yes. So, given the fact that I had been able to, you know, prove myself under harsh circumstances, prove my judgment, my composure, my, you know, warrior spirit, if you will, despite all this and despite the medals that came and the valor devices and everything - you know, there's a position called a combat controller. And the officer version of that is a special tactics officer. It would have been right up my alley. Despite everything that I had just proven, I was barred from even applying for that job.
SIMON: Major Hegar, I got to ask you a couple of questions. I want it understood they in no way question your valor, your physical, mental or emotional capabilities. But, you know, the U.S. Marine Corps, for example, has a 12-week course for officers that's a prerequisite for leaving infantry units. And the first two women who tried to make it through that course last year didn't.
SIMON: Do you think standards should in any way be changed so that you get more equal numbers of men and women?
HEGAR: Not at all. Because the problem isn't that there aren't in combat - they are in combat. What we're trying to do is create the opportunity to apply, not fill the positions on the graduation end. When I heard that they had washed out, I was encouraged because the washout rate for men is pretty high too. I would be very discouraged if I saw someone graduate a course like that who was not capable. You know, not to take anything away from these two women, because nothing damages us women in combat in the field worse than a woman who isn't capable being allowed.
SIMON: I've been embedded with U.S. troops. And, as I don't have to tell you, you know, it's close quarters out there - in all ways - and soldiers are exposed to each other in all kinds of intimate ways. Does mixing genders just add an extra complication that combat can do without?
HEGAR: You know, I was forward deployed with Delta Force. I slept in some pretty crappy places, for lack of a better term. Is it a little bit of extra effort? Sure. You know, I'm not going to say that it's not. But when you look at the benefit, when you look at what you're losing, OK, the qualified, talented, amazing, remarkable women who walk into a recruiter's office and want to serve their country and are told you can serve your country but you have to pick from one of these jobs. It's just that you're a woman. But you know what? Every step of progress along the way in the history of our country, there have been people who have tried to make it more difficult, you know, integrated, racially or in any other, you know, situation that we've had to take a step forward in progress. There have been people that have made it more difficult. But the benefit just far outweighs.
SIMON: Major Mary Jennings Hegar. Thanks so much.
HEGAR: Thank you so much.