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A woman and a man grip weapons side by side during a Marine training exercise in Virginia.

Molly A. Burgess/Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Research Communications

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.10, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.8, W.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.1

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.2, Civ.6, Civ.9, Civ.13, His.1, His.2, His.5

NCSS: Individuals, groups, and institutions; Time, continuity, and change

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

Women on the Front Lines

Nearly two years after the military opened all combat positions to women, what's changed—and what hasn't? 

Courtesy of Marine Cpl. Katherine Montalbano

As a Marine stationed in Iraq, Corporal Katherine Montalbano did not shy away from the action. She fired machine guns, dismantled enemy weapons, and searched locals at checkpoints. 

Yet unlike the male Marines she served alongside back in 2008, Montalbano wasn’t considered a member of the infantry. Instead, she was a temporary member of a male combat unit. Her group—called the Lionesses—was an early test of how women would handle serving on the front lines. 

Montalbano and other female troops earned praise, but it took nearly another decade for the U.S. military to officially let women serve in combat roles. In January 2016, the Department of Defense opened all combat positions in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard to female troops.

Since then, many women have signed on for once-forbidden roles. They are driving tanks, throwing grenades, leading troops into battle—and making history. Just this past spring, a group of women became the first to graduate from U.S. Army infantry training, a milestone two centuries in the making. And in September, the first female Marine completed the Corps’s infantry officer program, one of the toughest in the military.

The progress doesn’t surprise Montalbano. “I have seen women knock out pull-ups like it was nothing and take down a male during hands-on training,” she says. “We are all trained the same.”

Still, the gender integration of the military is far from complete. Though hundreds of women have earned combat spots, they still make up just a small fraction of U.S. combat troops. Some elite military groups, such as the Navy SEALs, haven’t yet had a woman qualify. In addition, some people continue to argue that women have no place on the battlefield at all.

As a Marine stationed in Iraq, Corporal Katherine Montalbano did not shy away from the action. She fired machine guns. She took apart enemy weapons. She searched locals at checkpoints.

Yet unlike the male Marines she served with back in 2008, Montalbano was not considered a member of the infantry. Instead, she was a temporary member of a male combat unit. Her group was called the Lionesses. It was an early test of how women would handle serving on the front lines.

Montalbano and other female troops were praised for their bravery. But it took nearly another decade for the U.S. military to officially let women serve in combat roles. In January 2016, the Department of Defense opened all combat positions to women in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard.

Since then, many women have signed on for once-forbidden roles. They are making history as they drive tanks, throw grenades, and lead troops into battle. Just this past spring, a group of women became the first to graduate from U.S. Army infantry training. That achievement was two centuries in the making. In September, the first female Marine completed the Corps’s infantry officer program. That is one of the toughest programs in the military.

The progress does not surprise Montalbano. “I have seen women knock out pull-ups like it was nothing and take down a male during hands-on training,” she says. “We are all trained the same.”

Still, integrating women into the military is far from complete. Hundreds of women have earned combat spots, but they still make up just a small portion of U.S. combat troops. Some exclusive military groups, such as the Navy SEALs, still have not had a woman qualify. In addition, some people continue to argue that women have no place on the battlefield at all.

A Long History of Service

Women have served in the armed forces since the nation’s founding. They were nurses, cooks, and spies during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During the Civil War (1861-1865), some women even disguised themselves as men to fight (see “Key Dates,” below)

However, women were not allowed to officially join the military until the last two years of World War I (1914-1918). Even then, most of the 33,000 women who signed up were limited to nursing or other temporary support positions. 

Women’s options expanded during World War II (1939-1945), when more than 400,000 of them served as mechanics, pilots, nurses, and radio operators.

Women have served in the armed forces since the beginning of the nation. They were nurses, cooks, and spies during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During the Civil War (1861-1865), some women even dressed as men to fight. (See “Key Dates,” below.)

But women were not allowed to officially join the military until the last two years of World War I (1914-1918). Even then, most of the 33,000 women who signed up could serve only as nurses or in temporary support positions.

Women had more opportunities during World War II (1939-1945). More than 400,000 of them served as mechanics, pilots, nurses, and radio operators.

“I have seen women knock out pull-ups and take down a male during training.”

Today more than 210,000 women serve in the U.S. armed forces. They make up more than 16 percent of active-duty troops. 

Yet progress for female troops has been slow. Critics, including some top military officials, fought hard for years against allowing women in combat roles. They argued that women would weaken combat units. Others feared that having women on the front lines would distract male soldiers, which could be deadly in battle. 

Today, more than 210,000 women serve in the U.S. armed forces. They make up more than 16 percent of active-duty troops.

Yet progress for female troops has been slow. Some people have fought hard for years to keep women out of combat roles. Those critics include some top military officials. Such opponents argued that women would weaken combat units. Others feared that having women on the front lines would cause male soldiers to lose focus. That could be deadly in battle.

Evolving Roles 

Keeping female troops out of the line of fire became more difficult as modern warfare evolved—especially during the nation’s ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both wars, traditional front lines do not exist. Firefights can occur anywhere. 

As a result, thousands of U.S. servicewomen in Afghanistan and Iraq dodged bullets and roadside bombs for years before they were officially allowed in combat. Nearly 14,000 of them earned military honors for engaging with the enemy. For many Americans, hearing of those female troops’ heroics was a turning point.

Keeping female troops out of battle has become more difficult as modern warfare has changed. A lot of the change has taken place during the nation’s current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both wars, traditional front lines do not exist. Combat can happen anywhere.

As a result, thousands of U.S. servicewomen in Afghanistan and Iraq dodged bullets and roadside bombs for years before they were officially allowed to fight. Nearly 14,000 of them earned military honors for battling the enemy. For many Americans, hearing of those female troops’ bravery was a turning point.

Over time, “the issue of women in combat . . . was no longer a question,” Ash Carter, then the U.S. secretary of defense, stated in 2016. “Women had seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting, and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” he said.

Indeed, according to data from the Congressional Research Service, at least 167 women have been killed in action since 2001. More than 1,000 have been injured.

Over time, “the issue of women in combat . . . was no longer a question,” said Ash Carter in 2016. At the time, he was the U.S. secretary of defense. “Women had seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting, and in some cases, dying alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” he said.

Data from the Congressional Research Service support that claim. Records show that at least 167 women have been killed in action since 2001. More than 1,000 have been injured.

Equally Tough

When the Department of Defense opened combat roles to women, military leaders emphasized that positions would be filled based on ability, not gender. The 18 women who became the first to complete Army infantry training in May 2017 met the same physical requirements as their male counterparts. They hurled grenades 100 feet, marched a dozen miles at a time shouldering heavy packs, and singlehandedly dragged a 268-pound dummy across a battlefield. 

“They carry what everyone else carries. They walk the same amount of mileage. They push, they pull, they sweat, they bleed just like everybody else,” Sergeant 1st Class Joseph Sapp, a drill sergeant, told the Army Times about his female infantry recruits. 

The first female Marine infantry officer also completed the same  grueling 13-week course as male hopefuls. “The significance of her achievement cannot be overstated,” wrote two retired Marines.

When the Department of Defense opened combat roles to women, military leaders pointed out that positions would be filled based on ability, not gender. In May 2017, 18 women became the first to complete Army infantry training. They met the same physical requirements as the male recruits. They threw grenades 100 feet, marched a dozen miles at a time while carrying heavy packs, and dragged a 268-pound dummy across a battlefield on their own.

“They carry what everyone else carries. They walk the same amount of distance. They push, they pull, they sweat, they bleed just like everybody else,” Sergeant 1st Class Joseph Sapp told the Army Times. The drill sergeant was talking about his female infantry recruits.

The first female Marine infantry officer also completed the same demanding 13-week course as male hopefuls. “The significance of her achievement cannot be overstated,” wrote two retired Marines.

Mike Keefe/Cagle Cartoons

Female troops have secured their spot on the battlefield, but something is still missing, some people say. What point is the cartoonist trying to make?

Physical Limits?

Not every woman who tries for a direct combat position succeeds, of course. In the first co-ed Army infantry boot camp, 44 percent of the women who started ended up dropping out. For men, the dropout rate was 20 percent.

The disparity is more obvious in special forces training, which is longer and more demanding. Eighteen women in 2015 were the first to attempt Army Ranger training. Just two finished. And one woman began the long process to become the first female Navy SEAL this summer, only to quit weeks later. (About 75 percent of male SEAL hopefuls drop out.) 

For people who oppose having women in combat, those stats point to a key argument: Women simply aren’t as physically strong as men. 

“Even though some exceptional women might qualify, the fact remains that most women cannot meet physical standards for combat units, while most men can,” says Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness.

Not every woman who tries for a direct combat position succeeds, of course. In the first co-ed Army infantry boot camp, 44 percent of the women who started ended up dropping out. For men, the dropout rate was 20 percent.

The difference is more obvious in special forces training. That is a longer and more demanding program. In 2015, 18 women were the first to attempt Army Ranger training. Just two finished. This summer, one woman began the long process to become the first female Navy SEAL. She quit weeks later. (About 75 percent of male SEAL hopefuls drop out.)

For people who oppose having women in combat, these figures support one of their main arguments: Women simply are not as physically strong as men.

“Even though some exceptional women might qualify, the fact remains that most women cannot meet physical standards for combat units, while most men can,” says Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness.

“Most women cannot meet physical standards for combat units.”

A recent Marine Corps study found that all-male squads can climb walls and other obstacles faster, move wounded comrades more efficiently, and shoot more accurately than co-ed squads. Female troops also get injured twice as often as male troops, the study reported.

Marine Captain Katie Petronio experienced the physical demands of the front lines firsthand. She served in combat in Afghanistan. By her fifth month there, her legs often buckled, her agility declined, and her response time slowed, she recalled in an editorial arguing against allowing women in combat.

“The rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines,” Petronio wrote.

A recent Marine Corps study found that all-male squads can climb walls and other obstacles faster than co-ed squads. They can move wounded comrades more effectively and can shoot more accurately. Female troops also get injured twice as often as male troops, the study reported.

Marine Captain Katie Petronio personally experienced the physical demands of the front lines. She served in combat in Afghanistan. By her fifth month there, she noticed changes. Her legs often weakened, her agility decreased, and her response time slowed. She recalled those changes in an editorial arguing against allowing women in combat.

“The rate of my [decline] was noticeably faster than that of male Marines,” Petronio wrote.

Moving in the Right Direction

Physical challenges aren’t the only issues female troops face. Even with all combat roles open, the battlefield is not even, some troops say. One example: Most body armor and helmets are designed for men. 

Military leaders say they are aware of the challenges and are working to adapt. The Marine Corps, for example, has agreed to integrate all parts of its boot camp training by as early as next spring. The branch—which has the lowest percentage of women—aims to have women make up at least 10 percent of its forces by 2019. Other branches are stepping up female recruitment as well.

The more women who move into combat positions, the more others will follow, military experts predict. And holding those jobs may offer a faster path to leadership positions. Serving in combat has historically been critical to career advancement in the military, and women have argued that the combat ban had long stopped them from competing with men for top spots. 

Montalbano, for one, remains optimistic that women’s role in the military—and in direct combat—will continue to grow. “Baby steps have turned into great leaps,” she says. “We have come a long way.”

Physical challenges are not the only issues female troops face. Some of them say that even though all of the combat roles are open, the battlefield is not even. For example, most body armor and helmets are designed for men.

Military leaders say they are aware of the challenges and are working to meet them. The Marine Corps, for example, has agreed to integrate all parts of its boot camp training by as early as next spring. That branch has the lowest percentage of women. The goal is to have women make up at least 10 percent of its forces by 2019. Other branches are trying to increase female enrollment as well.

Military experts predict that as more women move into combat positions, even more will follow. Holding such jobs may offer a faster path to leadership positions. Historically, serving in combat has been key to career advancement in the military. Women have argued that the combat ban had long stopped them from competing with men for top spots.

Montalbano, for one, remains hopeful that women’s role in the military, and in direct combat, will continue to grow. “Baby steps have turned into great leaps,” she says. “We have come a long way.”

CORE QUESTION: What kinds of challenges might female combat troops face?

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