News Column

Women Soldiers: We're Already on Front Lines

Jan. 29, 2013

Courtney Mabeus, The Frederick News-Post, Md.

Frederick County, Md., soldiers and veterans are glad women could soon have an equal opportunity to serve in combat, but some wondered Friday how the Pentagon's announcement would play out.

The decision, announced Thursday by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, opens up about 237,000 positions to women -- 184,000 in combat arms jobs and 53,000 others that had been closed based on the unit's type, the Pentagon said.

"People are making a big deal over it but, I'm like, 'I already did that,'" Sgt. 1st Class Eartha deGannes, who works at Fort Detrick, said Friday.

DeGannes has deployed three times, to Kuwait, and to Kabul and Jalalabad, both in Afghanistan. She has been shot at while on patrol, she said. She questioned critics who have asked if America is "ready to lose their mothers and daughters."

"OK, well, America is losing its mothers and daughters in America," deGannes said, mentioning domestic violence and other crime. "What is the point?"

Changes are not expected immediately, though some jobs may open this year. Panetta directed the military services to evaluate occupational performance standards to be sure they are current and gender-neutral with an expected completion date of Jan. 1, 2016.

The way wars are fought has changed in recent years, Lt. Col. Kate Suarez said, with women often serving in support roles attached to units on a battlefield with blurry front lines.

Suarez, who works at Fort Detrick, served 12 years on active duty before joining the Army Reserve.

Though she doesn't think she would have sought out such a role, allowing women to serve in combat makes sense, based on today's conflict conditions, she said.

"It's almost like making something legal that people have always done," Suarez said.

All jobs should "be based solely on a person's capabilities to perform the required work," Suarez said. The decision allowing women in combat "is good in that it provides a new opportunity for fully qualified female soldiers to actively participate during a time when both the current operation tempo is high and combat operating strength must remain steady."

When Dorothy Early, of Ijamsville, joined the Navy in 1968 at age 25, "women weren't even allowed to have children" if they wanted to serve, she said. Early stayed 51u2 years and then joined the Navy Reserve, retiring as a commander.

If she'd had the option to serve in a combat role when she joined in her 20s, Early said she probably would have gone for it.

"Today, I'm more of a chicken," she said.

Though she questioned why a woman with children would want to serve in combat, Early said if a female soldier without a family is qualified, "I think she should be able to."

More than 6,400 men and women serve in the Maryland National Guard. The state's Army Guard is 16 percent female and the Air Guard is 18 percent female, Lt. Col. Charles Kohler told Capital News Service.

Women have been barred from Frederick's 130-member 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, Kohler said. Several years ago, the Guard started an engineer unit, based in Hagerstown, to increase local opportunities for women, he said.

Kohler said Friday he did not yet know when women might begin to join the infantry unit, but he hoped the change would attract more reservists into its ranks.

"It's always good to give people more opportunities," he said.

A number of objections have been raised to the policy change. Some people worry that male soldiers might put themselves at risk to protect their female counterparts. Others mention sexual tension that could play out in the ranks. Some question whether women have the physical strength necessary for combat.

Retired Marine Sgt. Adam Kisielewski, who served in Iraq, worries that female soldiers in combat could be a distraction for the men they serve beside.

"I'm skeptical because we're in combat right now and it's never been tried before," he said, adding that time will tell.

DeGannes said she witnessed those tough situations and stood up to male counterparts who were either unkind or tried to protect her. As trained soldiers, "we're fighting together," she said.

In a combat situation, "I don't need you to worry about what's going on with me," deGannes said. "I need you to worry about what's going on over there."

The Army has done a good job providing sexual harassment training, "and we're headed in the right direction," she said.

"With all the training that they're giving us, we'll be OK."

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