Combat Exclusion: Let’s Suppose…

For an upcoming feature, we have been speaking with a number of people in theater and several back from that cesspool known as Afghanistan. (Their words.) Given the topic, almost on cue, they talk of the 360-degree battlefield. We’ve heard it before. We’ve even spoken to a Canadian counterinsurgency officer who says IEDs, gunfire, whatever—if it’s meant to kill, it will find people regardless of job title, rank, or gender. Old news.

But some still cling to that potent passage in Title 10 of the U.S. Code that puts the kibosh on women in combat units below the brigade level. These reasons may have made sense in 1994 when the law was written, but are questionable today. Current operations show women shoulder the risk, the responsibility, but remain perennially fourth string.

According to the law, Congress must be notified by the Secretary of Defense of any changes regarding the ground combat exclusion policy, whether he opens or closes a position to women. Details are a must, so, really, are those on the ground going to contact Manpower or Legislative Affairs requesting a notification to Congress that sits with lawmakers for 30 consecutive days? Wars are won and lost in less time. Hey, the Marines blew it off when they opened what some consider ground combat-related MOS 0211 (counter intel) to women, and it seems lawmakers shut them down. (Notification is now pending. We’re told.)

Of course, they have found a way around the policy. Let’s look at Sgt. Kathryn Burke. Her role as a vehicle gunner, above, is exactly what any fellow soldier would do, especially her ground combat compadres and any remaining private security gun-toters Attach her to this non ground-combat unit and put her in a potentially lethal situation? No worries. Put her in the same capacity with a combat unit, and everyone’s aghast. Ambushed in Afghanistan? No problem, as long as you’re not attached to a ground combat unit.

Take this a step further. The Marine Corps is training women to act in a counterinsurgency role. (That’s our and other counterinsurgency professionals’ characterization, not the Corps’.) The trained females go to the villages, interact with the Afghan women, get the lay of the land, which sheik is in which one’s out. They discern the needs of the village. They do what their male counterinsurgency and normally combat-MOS counterparts do. Women perform this function because of the realities of Afghan culture. This is not news, and the Army started this in Iraq some time ago. Let’s have these female teams patrol with, maybe, ground combat units. Are we in violation of the law?

Call the lawyers! This is a collateral duty for the U.S. women. Combat is not their primary role and the unit is but a temporary hook-up. The women are out to engage Afghan females, not bad, mean men with guns, so what’s the harm? Hey, most wear head scarves. (Defense pundit Tom Ricks has touched on the counterinsurgency topic.)

All the women with whom we’ve spoken recounted they were eager to perform what they had joined to do. So they volunteer for this work outside the wire. They don a head scarf. Anything. Ground combat commanders often get the crucial info they need and the women remain barred from ground combat units and specialties. Fourth string. It does not seem right.

We are indebted to the members of Congress who voted to open the service academies to women. Without them it was not going to happen. So, maybe there is merit in Congressional involvement. Lawmakers can change this, but it seems unlikely at this time. Other issues are in the forefront, and our guess is two of the service chiefs would be strongly opposed—understatement.

Many of these females have the capability, interest, and desire to serve in ground combat roles. They are or can become as qualified as many males. Current policies that force creative workarounds seem exploitative and counterproductive. C’mon, they do!

Sgt. Kathryn Burke, 402nd Brigade Support Battalion, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, serves as a vehicle gunner for the first time during a resupply patrol in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Kathryn Burke, 402nd Brigade Support Battalion, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, serves as a vehicle gunner for the first time during a resupply patrol in Afghanistan.

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