The Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy group for women in the armed forces, has responded to a controversial anti-"women in combat" editorial in the Marine Corps Gazette, saying, "Plain and simple: If a person can meet the standards required for any occupation in the military, then they should not be disqualified due to gender."
The essay's author, Captain Katie Petronio, a Marine captain and combat veteran, wrote that the U.S. military should not officially allow women to fight alongside their male counterparts on the front lines. Citing a series of medical and emotional challenges that she faced on tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Infantry officer said that women are simply not up to the rigors of combat, an assertion that SWAN flatly refutes.
In her editorial, Captain Petronio wrote, "As a combat-experienced Marine officer, and a female," she wrote, "I am here to tell you that we are not all created equal, and attempting to place females in the infantry will not improve the Marine Corps as the Nation’s force-in-readiness or improve our national security."
SWAN Policy Director Greg Jacob responded in a statement to Raw Story, "Being a combat-experienced, male infantryman having served as both an enlisted infantryman and infantry officer, I can tell you that for the U.S. Marines to adopt a policy that ensures the best of the best, regardless of gender, are leading Marines in combat will improve the fighting ability of the Marine Corps and will not degrade readiness, or compromise national security."
He went on to say that the current arguments against women in infantry, armored and artillery positions are not without historical precedent, but that the military must continue its efforts to put the best personnel into the positions they qualify for, regardless of race, gender or orientation. "Plain and simple: If a person can meet the standards required for any occupation in the military, then they should not be disqualified due to gender. The same strident arguments were articulated from within the ranks when the military integrated racially in the 1940s and more recently as Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed. Fortunately for critics of change, a rising tide lifts all boats."
The back-and-forth was spurred by a recent announcement by the Pentagon that it is loosening restrictions on women in combat. In February the military announced that 14,000 jobs previously closed to female service members were being opened to female candidates, a move that brings the Department of Defense closer to a hurdle that it has thus far been reluctant to leap over, the question as to whether female soldiers should officially be allowed on the front lines of combat, in the infantry, armored corps and artillery divisions.
Petronio wrote that her desire to serve her country outstripped her body's resources and in spite of the fact that she was an award-winning athlete, months in the field left her physically and medically debilitated. She argued that while the army has already "rogered up" and lifted some bans on women in combat positions, the Marine Corps functions differently.
"Regardless of what the Army decides to do, it’s critical to emphasize that we are not the Army; our operational speed and tempo, along with our overall mission as the Nation’s amphibious force-in-readiness, are fundamentally different than that of our sister Service," she said.
"By no means is this distinction intended as disrespectful to our incredible Army," she wrote, but she believes that physical limitations imposed upon her by her gender ultimately detracted from her Marine unit's combat readiness.
"By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability. It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions," she wrote, "At the end of the 7-month deployment, and the construction of 18 PBs later, I had lost 17 pounds and was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (which personally resulted in infertility, but is not a genetic trend in my family), which was brought on by the chemical and physical changes endured during deployment.”
Women service members are currently serving on the front lines, many on special permission from the armed forces. The military has yet to answer, however, whether this will result in a full lifting of the ban on women in combat, which some see as the last bastion of gender discrimination in the U.S. armed forces.
Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), senior female on the House Armed Services Committee and founder and chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women in the Military has worked tirelessly to repeal the ban on women in combat.
“A repeal of the combat exclusion policy should have happened long ago,” said Sanchez in May of this year, "Our servicewomen fight in combat zones every day whether or not their assignment is technically classified as such. Many servicewomen have gained combat experience on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are unable to have this experience properly recognized. This prevents the promotion of female service members because combat experience is often required for career advancement.”
Sanchez introduced H.R. 5792 (.pdf), a bill to encourage the Department of Defense to repeal the Ground Combat Exclusion policy for female members, which is currently before Congress.
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