News Column

Objective Combat Vets Express Concerns with New Pentagon Policy

Jan 25, 2013

Jeb Phillips

There was bound to be criticism of yesterday's Pentagon move to allow women into front-line combat jobs -- maybe from older generations of veterans, or from men now in those positions.

But some of the strongest words yesterday came from women who already have found themselves in or near combat.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Ambreea Dills, 29, of Gahanna, a former Ohio Army National Guard soldier. She earned a combat-action badge during her 2004-05 deployment to a Baghdad military medical clinic.

"Can we fight in combat? Yes, I've done it," said Jolene Raciborski, 27, of Port Clinton, Ohio. She was in the Army military police in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 and also earned a combat-action badge.

"Should (women) be there? I think a lot of questions are going to arise," she said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed the order lifting the ban on women in front-line combat. That eventually could open 237,000 jobs to women in sectors such as the infantry.

The different service branches have until May 15 to offer plans to implement the policy by 2016.

Raciborski, Dills and thousands of other women have been in battle, even if their jobs weren't directly on the front lines. Raciborski, who now lives in Colorado where her husband is stationed with the Air Force, was in a firefight with a man shooting at Iraqi civilians.

Dills said that her clinic took mortar hits several times a week. Though not a medic, she helped stabilize troops who were hurt.

It's those experiences that inform their opinions, they say. Raciborski talked about the touchy issue of hygiene in a war zone. The simple act of going to the bathroom on a combat patrol is more difficult for a woman than for a man, she said.

Dills spoke of differences in strength. If a woman can't physically do the same work in a combat situation as a man, that woman could become a liability.

"I think I am stronger than most women out there," she said. "There's no way that a woman can carry the same weight that a man can."

Ohio Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Shellie Woods, 44, of Beavercreek, near Dayton, made the same point. She's a mechanic who worked with the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2010.

She imagined a combat patrol during which a woman would be required to lift an injured 200-pound man carrying an additional 40 pounds of equipment.

"I might be able to do that once," but not consistently, she said. "About 14 percent of the military are women. Maybe 1 percent of that 14 percent could perform the job as a male does."

Gender-neutral performance standards will be developed for all the new jobs opening to women, defense officials said. But whether that means the physical requirements become more or less rigorous remains to be seen, depending on the actual demands of the position, they said.

All three Ohio women also spoke of the male-dominant culture of combat postings. Sexual harassment can be common in those jobs and can make women feel unsafe, Woods said.

Daniel Hutchinson, founder of Hilliard-based Ohio Combat Veterans, said he served with women who performed at least as well as men when he was a combat medic in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

"People are making a big deal about women being in combat, but women have already been in combat," he said.

He also said, though, that he supports the idea that women in front-line jobs would have to meet the same physical standards as men.

Marine Sgt. Samantha Allen, 25, a senior at Ohio State University, is all for the change. She signed up for the Marines specifically so she could see combat, she said. She didn't during a deployment to Iraq in 2009.

She understands that people have concerns. Combat is stressful and presents challenges. It is a macho world -- the entire military is.

But offering front-line positions to women could help change that, as well as the way women are perceived in the military, Allen said.

She is scheduled to be discharged this year. But with the lifting of the ban, she's thinking about pursuing a position as an officer so she can see battle. She thinks there are other women like her out there.

"I would say that the Marine Corps will have more who want to join," she said.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)


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