war on the rocks

Women in Combat Arms: Just Good Business

February 25, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a short series on the debate over women serving in combat arms in the U.S. military.


No Shit, There I Was…

Congresswoman Martha McSally, the first female aviator to fly in combat, said that her most memorable mission was the first time she shot at the enemy in Afghanistan. She and her A-10 wingman were called in to kill insurgents fighting friendly troops in rugged terrain:

On my last rocket pass, my heads up display failed with all of our computerized weapons sites. I had to rely on the very archaic backup called “standby pipper,” which was a hard site. I needed to quickly get ready to shoot the gun manually, where I had to be at an exact dive angle, airspeed, and altitude when opening fire in order to be accurate. We destroyed the enemy on several passes. We train for this type of malfunction, but I never would have imagined shooting the gun in standby pipper in combat like this.

Cut to Iraq in the spring of 2003. Captain Haynie’s (now Major Haynie) section of cobra attack helicopters was supporting 3/23 in the vicinity of Al Kut. Haynie described the situation to me in an email:

It was a late night flight, so we were on NVGs [night vision goggles] and we were flying in support of a unit taking fire within the town. There was a fire fight- we were getting shot at; the guys on the ground were getting shot at. We were feeding them information on what we saw, and the forward air controller asked us to fly over their position to see what the enemy would do. It worked. A number of hours later, I was headed to the HQ tent at the airfield a few miles away when a few young Marines walked up. They were from the unit we’d been supporting and had heard a female voice over the radio, and when they saw me, they came up to thank me. One of them said that having us overhead was one of the best, most comforting sounds they had heard in awhile.

Back to Afghanistan, fast forward to 2011, and I was in the pilot’s seat. The skies were clear and the insert had gone off without a hitch. The operation started like any other early morning raid. We escorted the birds in for the insert and stayed overhead to provide overwatch. The Marines were conducting a raid on the west side of the river in the Upper Gereshk valley. My Huey wingman watched on his sensors as a ragged line of villagers fled north, dragging children and farm animals in tow. All signs indicated an imminent Taliban ambush on the infantry Marines below. We hoped we would be able to get the Marines extracted by the CH-53s sitting at Forward Operating Base Oullette before the fight came. But, as any Marine can tell you, hope is not a course of action. As the transport aircraft were on their final approach to the landing zone, the Taliban let lose a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades. We tipped in, cleared hot for weapons release, and unleashed a barrage of our own.

The Challenge

The debate over whether or not women should be allowed to fly combat aircraft arose after Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Arguments against allowing women to serve in these roles echo those we hear today against allowing women to serve in the ground combat arms. They also recall arguments against racial desegregation of the military that followed World War II and the recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In all of these cases, those arguments crumbled from their obvious inadequacies and the armed services protecting America today are as capable as they are currently allowed to be. However, the pointiest tip of the spear could be sharper. Combat arms units are not as lethal as they could be if they had full access to all eligible Americans, not just men.

We have had this conversation before, and we are having it again. On January 24, 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rescinded the combat exclusion policy thereby allowing our women in uniform to serve in combat arms occupational specialties. However, unlike the racial desegregation of the military in 1948, Secretary Panetta gave services the option to submit “exceptions to policy” to justify keeping certain occupations closed to women.

Let us first dispel the notion we are discussing “women in combat.” America’s daughters have been fighting in her defense since Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army as “Robert Shurtlieff” to fight the Red Coats. Today, women serve in many of our allies’ infantries, fighting alongside our service members in Afghanistan. Whether women should serve in combat is an irrelevant discussion. It has happened and is happening as you read this article. Today’s debate is over American women serving in combat arms specialties (e.g. infantry, tanks, artillery, and special operations).

We are at a pivotal moment in our country’s history. The repeal of the combat exclusion policy has given us an opportunity to realize the ability of every individual to contribute to our nation’s security. What is remarkable about the current conversation is how much emotion and how little evidence has been presented against the integration of women into combat arms. In a short series of articles here at War on the Rocks, I will identify, assess, and refute the validity of arguments against gender integration in order to elevate the conversation beyond emotion and lead our country to a holistic solution that will make our armed forces more capable of fighting and winning tomorrow’s wars.

It’s Not a “Social Experiment.” It’s Just Good Business.

In 1949 then-Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall argued to Congress in favor of maintaining segregation by stating the Army “was not an instrument for social evolution.” In 2011, Representative Allen West argued against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by stating, “The U.S. military is not there as a social experiment.” They are right – in spite of themselves. By their own words, the military’s mission is to “fight and win America’s wars.” America’s recruiting pool is already extraordinarily limited. When all of the qualifiers (minimum health, weight, education, aptitude, and criminal record) are added up, only 25 percent of young Americans, age 17 to 24, are even eligible to apply for military service. To further limit this already limited talent pool is bad business.

A common concern is that men and women cannot successfully work together in small teams because of cohesion issues. Sociologists and thirteen years of U.S. combat experience have shown that mission accomplishment is based on trust between leader, subordinates, and peers. On the one-year anniversary of the repeal of combat exclusion policy, General Dempsey wrote,

When in contact with the enemy, the individual soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine doesn’t consider whether their comrade in arms is a man or woman. They care about whether they can do their job. There is a simple explanation for this: trust transcends gender.

There are different types of unit cohesion. The most important for warfighting is task cohesion. Dr. Mady Segal defines task cohesion as the extent to which group members are able to work together to accomplish shared goals. Task cohesion includes the members’ respect for the abilities of their fellow group members and the faith that the group can protect each other from harm. As long as a female warrior proves her tactical decision making ability and physical prowess, her team members will see her as a member of the team. This is achieved through countless hours of daily training, pre-deployment work-ups, and actual deployments.

Army Sergeant Julia Bringloe, a medic responsible for working a helicopter’s hoist to get casualties out of deadly combat zones and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, relayed a story about her initial time with her “Dustoff” (the callsign of Army MEDEVAC helicopters in Afghanistan) crew:

As the only female in my platoon, when I first got there, I got there middeployment…you know, the first month was rough, without a doubt. I knew that the guys weren’t sure if I was going to be able to handle myself when I came in contact, which was inevitable doing hoist work in the Kunar [Province]. I Finally did my first mission and got shot at and got my patient on board and did my job and dropped my patient off. And then all of a sudden everybody talked to me. Do I think that is necessarily a gender specific thing? We sort of treat everyone like that until you get your first mission in…Now, those people I work with are my brothers.

As the services prepare their troops for combat, cohesion emerges as individuals prove their worth to the whole. Anyone who has played organized sports or been on a debate team recognizes this dynamic intuitively and through experience.

Recent history demonstrates the promise of full integration. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, women who served on Female Engagement Teams (FETs) and in the Lioness Program were used primarily by infantry and military police units to accompany patrols and work at checkpoints. This allowed our troops to have access to women in the community – and often to local men who preferred to speak to women. Upon entering the war zone, FETs were in “direct support” of the infantry units. They were expected to patrol, interact, and shoot when necessary, but rarely had extensive training with the units they worked and lived with. Despite this disadvantage, they performed their mission skillfully and successfully. If each of these young women were allowed to be in the infantry, there would be minimal need for FET and Lioness Teams. Many units would already have this inherent capability as fully integrated members of the team. Women have performed capably and bravely over the last decade. Imagine what could have been accomplished if they had been given the same training as these men, and think about the cohesion that would have naturally occurred if this difficult training was accomplished alongside their brothers-in-arms, as part of the unit.

Looking Forward

Many arguments against integration are the same recycled arguments used against racial desegregation, previous integration efforts, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The emotional fear of the critics must be overruled by the rational reality of unit cohesion. When every member of the team carries his or her pack, the team is stronger. Giving women the opportunity to try out for combat arms positions will strengthen their units if they earn those positions.

I have not presented all arguments in favor of integration in this article. There will be pieces that follow refuting the major concerns against integration so the reader may realize the value of capitalizing on all the talent available to the American people.   Fighting and winning America’s wars require the military to have unfettered access to the best, brightest, and most diverse talent pool of all Americans.


Katey “Talent” van Dam is an attack helicopter pilot by trade and combat veteran.  The opinions expressed herein are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.