The Pentagon's lifting its ban on women in combat does not necessarily mean that female troops will ever fill the front-line roles held by men, according to analysts, advocates and veterans.
Restrictive performance standards and military chiefs seeking "critical mass" among female applicants for combat jobs could delay or even negate the military's recent policy change, speakers said at symposium at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Washington.
Pentagon officials have said that performance standards for all military jobs — including 238,000 combat-related positions opened last month to female members of the armed forces — will become gender-neutral to allow men and women of similar abilities to do the same work.
But some observers and policymakers place too much emphasis on physical strength in talking about combat roles, said Air Force Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, 36, a National Guard helicopter pilot.
"I just really think that they're thinking of warfare as bayonets and hand-to-hand combat all the time," said Maj. Hegar, who was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries she received when her chopper was shot down on a search-and-rescue mission with special forces in Afghanistan in 2009.
"The ability to maintain your judgment and sound decision-making in life-or-death situations" is more important than mere upper body strength, Maj. Hegar said.
However, defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon said that physical strength is a key component of combat that must not be taken lightly. He noted that the first two female volunteers at the Marine Corps' all-male Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Va., both dropped within the first four weeks of the three-month program.
"Some people would say, 'Well, the Marines are just caught up in this macho-world where it's all about upper body strength,'" said Mr. O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There may be a little bit of that, but there's also a reality that infantry forces still fight by walking through the terrain for five or 10 miles with a lot of stuff on their back, and then using that equipment once they get there, so it's a legitimate question."
Former Marine infantry officer Greg Jacob, who is the policy director at the Service Women's Action Network, said he required female Marines to perform the same physical fitness tests as their male counterparts when he commanded an integrated training company.
"It was pretty ugly, I'm not going to lie," Mr. Jacob said. But "lo and behold what happened was that they got better at pullups. And I had women who were knocking out 10 pullups, 11 pullups."
The lesson he learned is that "if you set the bar really low, then you're not going to get a real high-performing group," he said.
Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman's call for a significant number, or "critical mass," of female service members to seek combat roles actually could hinder their entry into those jobs, advocates said.
"The issue there wouldn't be privacy," Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said during a Jan. 24 news conference. "It would be, you know, where's her ability to have upward mobility and compete for command if she's one of one? So, we do have to work both the standards and the kind of the critical mass, if you will, to make this work."
Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, the first American woman to fly in combat, dismissed the notion: "You don't need women mentors for women. All of my mentors were men."
"Anytime you're talking that language, that you need women to 'be with each other' ... that's just the wrong climate to be setting from the leadership climate," Col. McSally said. "Just the policy or the discussion of that creates resentment in the men, that women have to 'be together' in this time."
She added that Gen. Dempsey's "one of one comment makes no sense' because job performance is supposed to be based only on how standards are met, without regard to gender.
Col. Ingrid Gjerde, an infantry officer in the Norwegian army for 25 years and commander of Norwegian forces in Afghanistan in 2012, expressed concern that the "critical mass" idea would make the new policy harder to implement, but added that she has had a better time in units that had more women.
"I think you need a certain amount really to influence the culture. So we shouldn't say we need a specific [amounts], but we should work hard to increase the number," Col. Gjerde said.
She also said that when men and women shouldn't share the same sleeping areas when not deployed, especially if there are no locks on barracks doors.
"The combination with alcohol, young men and women together, that's not always easy," the combat veteran said. "It's sad to tell, but that's the truth."
The Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute hosted the symposium Friday in cooperation with the University of Virginia School of Law and Women in International Security.
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