Women in Combat: The Opportunity to Serve

Last week Defense Secretary Panetta signed an order lifting a 1994 Pentagon rule on women serving in close-combat positions. 

To paraphrase the Shakespeare play,  it was much ado about something.

The decision ends a nearly 20-year ban that kept women from approximately 230,000 military positions. 

U.S. service chiefs have until January 2016 to recommend whether some positions should remain closed to women, such as Navy commandos or the Army’s Delta Force. 

The brouhaha surrounding the determination results in valid discussions about the pro’s and con’s of such a decision. One argument is that several countries already allow women in combat so why not ours to another charge that women in combat negatively affect male combatants. 

But here’s the bottom line:
“If they (women) can meet the standards, there is no reason why they shouldn’t have the chance,” Panetta said during a news conference at the Pentagon.

That’s what the decision amounts to for women-the opportunity to serve. 


“From a civil rights perspective, the decision to open up infantry positions to all qualified candidates simply conforms to a well-established prohibition against basing access to employment on categorical traits rather than individual ability.”- Rachel Natelson, Service Women’s Action Network.


It takes a strong woman, physically and mentally, to be in the military. Una  chingona, as I say. 

“Many times.. in combat there is not a line. We’re all in harms way,” said Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, the highest ranking Latina in the Combat Support Field of the U.S. Army, before her retirement as a Lt. Colonel. She believes the change in policy will open the possibilities for promotion for women in the military.


Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War veteran who lost both legs and the use of one arm when her helicopter crew was shot down in 2004, said allowing women into combat roles is necessary in a time when the military is an all-volunteer force.

“I think that this opens up a pool of folks who could serve in these positions. Any time that we’ve opened up our military to performance-based service … we’ve benefited as a military.”

Using history as a guide, this opportunity to serve brings with it several obstacles for women to surmount. 

Think of any male dominated job in the last twenty years: law enforcement, fire fighting, military, park rangers, or construction. Females in these professions have endured being pushed aside, given different tasks, passive aggressive behavior from colleagues, being kept from the serious assignments, or outright hostility. 

My own career was in a male dominated field: State Corrections-a prison setting. A career goal was almost lost to me when I had the opportunity to become the Fire Camp Superintendent. 

This camp housed male inmates on one side of the fence and female inmates on the other. Both were trained as wildland firefighters. This was a joint venture with the Department of Forestry and who also trained correctional staff.

One of the hurdles to become the Superintendent was to pass the basic DoF exams. A part of the timed test was to deploy the fire shelter. This consisted of pulling a folded shelter out of your backpack, opening it, covering yourself completely, and dropping to the ground with arms and legs outstretched in each corner, securing it and your body to the ground. 

The whistle blew, the shelter deployed, and I dropped to the ground. I could feel the fire captain tug on each end, ensuring it was secure. That should have been the end of the test, however he didn’t instruct me to stand up. He continued to tug hard at each corner of the shelter.  

The captain yanked again, this time tearing off a piece of the shelter. “Get up,” he said in almost inaudible tired voice. When I stood, he looked embarrassed and walked away. I passed that test and in subsequent years the other obstacles meant to discourage me.

Every woman in a male dominated profession has a story like this to tell. 


For women who chose to enter into military combat roles, the obstacles will be many and severe, from the time away from children to the risk of sexual assault and the other atrocities of war. (In Helen Benedict’s novels, Sand Queen and Private War of Women in Iraq , the risks and challenges females in the military face are presented).

But the choice of entering into a combat role is now an opportunity that thousands of women are allowed to make even if only hundreds serve in these positions. 



Categories: Chingonas, Consuelo Castillo Kickbush, Helen Benedict, Rep. Duckworth, Sand Queen, Strong Women, Women in Combat, Women in male dominated jobs, Women in the Military

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