Muzzle-to-Muzzle: Women’s Veiled Combat Role

With the hand-wringing over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” an issue that potentially affects half the U.S. population seems forgotten. While discussions of women in combat seem passé, a number of laws and policies remain hampering their participation in a crucial role in which they have long been engaged.

Services like the Marine Corps are able to employ women for combat missions by using conciliatory wording and accepted administrative procedures. The Corps’ Female Engagement Teams place women muzzle-to-muzzle with insurgents every day. The opportunities are unprecedented, and the women are on the boundary of true change. But the word play that says these women are merely supporting these combat units for the many months they serve with them is at best an emperors’ new clothes approach to operational planning.

It is time to scuttle the Department of Defense and service policies on women in combat and congressional Title 10 requirements and allow commanders to determine how to best employ assets.

To better fight this insurgency, the Marine Corps took its cue from earlier Army-sponsored programs in Iraq. Currently, the Corps’ FETs interact with Afghan women, children and even Afghan men. They glean valuable intelligence, root out weapons caches, and learn of improvised explosive device placements. According to one infantry company commander, his FETs are more effective with male Afghans than his male Marines are.

Here is a lesser known story. The two-person FETs also patrol with infantry squads. They fight off insurgent attacks, firing and maneuvering with their male teammates. They bed down on the perimeter at night. During six months in the field, the FETs fulfill a vast range of infantry job requirements.

Salvation is in the wording.

The recent FET group of 40 female Marines was assigned to the Ground Combat Element, a force-level organization. The teams were later attached (not assigned) to infantry combat units. Direct assignment would stop the program faster than a 15-car pile-up on the DC Beltway snarls traffic.

The FETs are all volunteers. Their two-month training includes patrolling and convoy operations, Pashto language, civil and hostile engagements, combat marksmanship, combat life saving skills, tactical training, improvised explosive device awareness, combat conditioning, and more. The weapons and equipment issued are the same as given to male Marines. They train as a Marine rifleman. “We need to move how they move. We know what they are going to do, and we know what we need to do,” said one sergeant.

Section 652 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code requires the Secretary of Defense to notify Congress in the event of opening or closing the assignment of females to a category, specialty or unit. Neglect this requirement and Congress will stop a service cold like it did when the Marine Corps opened intelligence specialty 0211 to women without the required 30-day notification to lawmakers.

In what is loosely referred to as DoD’s “ground combat exclusion policy” female members of the armed services may not be assigned to units below the brigade level likely to engage in direct ground combat. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, the DoD policy states:

“Women may not serve in units that (1) engage an enemy on the ground with weapons, (2) are exposed to hostile fire, and (3) have a high probability of direct physical contact with personnel of a hostile force.” The CRS states there are complaints that DoD is violating the spirit of the law. Others argue that women have proved themselves and “such restrictions should be removed.” Regardless, the DoD policy has been rendered moot.

The FETs exist because women are needed if the U.S. is to succeed in Afghanistan. But these women are being used. One might argue they never would be given this latitude if they were not an operational necessity. But this is a program of co-dependents. Women are enamored of their role. They say there is no better opportunity for women in the Marine Corps or for them personally. A young lance corporal confessed, “I want to get out where females can’t really go. This is my image of the Marine Corps. I am finally living my dream.”

The operational reality of the Female Engagement Teams seems to prove Section 652 of Title 10 and corresponding Defense Department policies have reached their expiration date. Why make it difficult for a service to employ its people as needed?
Why not allow service members to serve in units for which they are qualified?

Maybe the law and policies remain in place to put the genie back in the bottle in a post-Afghanistan world.

So, on this Veterans’ Day, remember those fighting and those whose service has been forgotten.

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