Women in Combat

I have found the recent media hysteria over the Pentagon's decision to allow women into combat, fascinating. There are those who wonder whether women have what it takes physically and emotionally to be successful on the battlefield while others are merely interested in gender equality no matter the cost. It is a matter of national defense, after all, but also a matter of accountability and fairness.

The physical requirements of combat are the first obvious challenge. Are women capable of meeting the physical demands on the battlefield? Here are a few quotes to prime the thought pump:

The issue of physical requirements is one with which the services continue to grapple. Though senior military officials acknowledge that they might, in some cases, have to develop gender-neutral standards, they stress that standards will not fall.

Mr. Panetta acknowledged that not all women will meet the standards required to serve in some of the military’s most physically demanding jobs. "In life, there are no guarantees of success. Not everyone is going to be a combat soldier,” he cautioned. “But everyone is entitled to the chance.”

While much is made of new 'high-tech' forms of warfare, we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that ground combat still requires levels of sheer physical strength, speed, and endurance that are relatively rare among women.

While I respect his statements relating to gender specific abilities there is a piece of the female equation that is often overlooked. We are too often measured solely against a physical standard when there are other considerations.

When I was 15-years-old I moved to a school district in New Hampshire where I was initially told I could not play soccer because there was not a girls team. Instead, I was informed I could play field hockey. Back then, the boys played soccer and girls played field hockey. That was simply the way it was in those days but I had moved from Alaska where field hockey did not exist. I was a talented, accomplished soccer player and the idea of my dreams being crushed by the fact I was female seemed outrageously offensive to me.

It is one thing to be told you do not meet the demands based upon performance but another thing altogether to be told you do not meet the gender test. One is fair, the other is not.

Fortunately, I had guardians who were unafraid to challenge the system. My aunt, who later became one of the first women judges in the state of New Hampshire, understood that women could compete. My uncle simply believed in me. There was no doubt in their minds whether I was capable enough to compete with the boys. They were persistent and I was eventually allowed to tryout for the boy's varsity team.

I was a sophomore at the time - shy, awkward, unpopular, and emotionally damaged. The only time life worked for me was on the soccer field. To say soccer saved my soul is a massive understatement. To be denied the opportunity to play on the basis of gender alone was, in my mind, a literal death sentence.

I clearly remember the first day of tryouts. I possessed enough doubt and fear to fuel a nation. It was a ridiculous scene. A scrawny 15-year-old girl stepping onto a battlefield of giants whose only mission was to crush me, not just because they could but also to prove their own gender worthy.

I sometimes wonder where I ever mustered the courage.

Field hockey, with its skirts and clubs, was looking better to me all the time. I got cold feet and informed my aunt I had changed my mind. I wasn't going to attempt playing after all. I still remember my aunt's direct response, "Melanie, don't be ridiculous!"

The irony of her command still makes me laugh. I walked onto my personal battlefield that day with 20 boys staring back at me, all thinking the same thing.

Don't be ridiculous!

I don't remember looking up. I stood on the sidelines juggling a ball until the coach told us to do our warm-up laps around the field - four laps around and then to the center circle to stretch out.

One amazing quality men possess is the ability to band together as brothers. It doesn't matter who you are, if you are male and the need arises you become, in an instant, brother. I suppose this dates back to our ancient heritage. Women did not need to band together to survive but men did and, on that particular day in my life, those soccer boys became brothers against me while I chased after them in desperate pursuit.

I remember how far ahead they were on the field. Every single one of them. I felt somewhat doomed and definitely ridiculous. I don't know what gave me the courage to keep running but we finally finished the warmup run. No one talked to me but they all towered over me, reminding me I did not belong there. I kept at it through all the drills. Most of the drills a blurred memory now except for the last moments of the day.

The last drill consisted of the ball being crossed to the center of the field by the coach. Each player lined up and the one object was to score. It seems ridiculous now. What chance has a goalie against a wide open shot on goal? It is far easier to score than to defend the space but very few could do it. This was the goalie's favorite drill. He was exceptional and I watched as one player after another failed to score against him. I was last up in the drill line. In retrospect, the pressure was off because none of the boys had been able to score, hence my failure would not be as meaningful as it might have been otherwise but my success would become exaggerated.

On my first attempt, I scored. There was silence. The goalie stood and told the coach to go again. I scored a second time. The goalie stood again and demanded yet another go around. I scored a third time. The goalie stood and stared at me. I looked back at him briefly then down at me feet. I wanted to run away. I felt I had somehow violated the law. There was silence then suddenly the clapping of hands, joined by more clapping of hands until all the boys were standing and clapping their approval of my success. From that moment forward, I was Sister.

There was a brief scuffle with the legalities of my playing on the boys varsity team. I was told that although I was good enough to play I would not be allowed to play. There were other things to consider beyond my ability. How would the locker room issues be handled? How would I be treated by the boys from other teams? Would referees judge the game fairly? Would I get hurt? The list of objections continued but can be encapsulated in one phrase: I was a girl.

I was told by a couple of boys, later on, that when they were informed I would not be allowed to play, a few of them marched into the coach's office and told him they were quitting the team unless I was allowed to play. It is a strange thing to be counted sister in a band of brothers. For whatever reasons, I was allowed onto the team and onto the battlefield of boys.

I had a lot to learn. I will be the first to confirm that women cannot compete equally as men in physical combat. There is no question that put to the ultimate physical test, women will fail against the best-trained men. It is also true that women possess some fears that were bred out of men in early existence. I discovered these truths even if I did not like them.

I remember the day the boys decided I needed to learn the art of not flinching. I had to learn to suppress fear. They stood me against a chain link fence then lined up, side by side facing me all within short range shooting distance. They instructed me to stand forward. I was not allowed to duck, turn away, or defend myself. Then, at the command of the leader, they proceeded to shoot upon me at once. I failed. I covered my head, crouched, and turned away. I won't describe the pain I endured as I obediently stood again to face the same punishment until I could at last stand without flinching as I was relentlessly fired upon. That day, I learned something about a man's bravery. It served me well on the battlefield.

I discovered many physical shortcomings as I played upon the field and I learned to overcome them in unique ways. For example, I learned that when a boy two times your size slams into you, you go down but if you are smart you can anticipate the timing and the force of his collision and match it with equal force so that you are not knocked down. I do not know what that is called but I do know it is possible to be smaller and weaker and withstand the blow without going down. Perhaps someone in physics has an equation for it but I learned how to meet brute force with a some sort of physics equation that allowed me to remain standing. It required intuition and the ability to react in a way different than one might suppose.

I also learned that I would never be equal in terms of physical speed so I adapted once again knowing that I could be as fast or faster in mental speed. I learned to read the field faster and instead of attempting to outrun my opponent, I outplayed them by handling the ball in ways none of them could match and by appearing in places they did not expect to find me. My ball handling skills far surpassed any of my opponents so I used this to my advantage. I did not have to run faster because I could control the ball better. I used a skill I possessed to match a skill I could not possess.

In essence, I capitalized on my strengths and upon their weakness. I played smarter because I couldn't run faster. I moved with more meaning and precision. I called upon intuition and applied knowledge. I practiced harder. I learned the way they played then I countered their attack with the mind thought only a woman could possess. In essence, the rules of engagement did not change but I became effective because I had something my opponents were unable to anticipate simply because they had not studied female combat the way I had studied male combat. In the end, I upset the playing field in unexpected ways.

In the argument over whether women are physically capable of succeeding as combat soldiers, what is the measurement? If the measurement is whether a woman can run as fast as a man, the answer is generally, no. However, if the question is whether women can compete on the battlefield effectively, well, it appears the Pentagon believes they can and I state emphatically that they can. I state emphatically that women can succeed in combat if they are allowed to succeed. I imagine their success depends not so much upon whether they look like a man when they go to battle or if they act like a man when they go to battle but more upon whether they will be allowed to combat the foe in a way that only a female can achieve.

I know my analogy to soccer will be brushed off as insignificant in terms of mortal combat. I do not mean to diminish the realities or atrocities, of true mortal combat but I use the example to illustrate that women are far more resourceful than they are allowed to be. It is true. We are not men. We will never be men. We will never match their physical brute but we possess qualities, that when combined with our study of male combat, could possibly make us more effective in battle and most certainly more surprising.

I will also point out that after the first day of tryouts, I was never last in the warm up run again. A few of the boys laughed about that day later with me. They said they had never run so fast in all their years of practice but they weren't going to let a girl beat them. Indeed, they never ran that fast again. In the end, I became as fast as most of them. I became fast enough and already possessed the ability to endure the longest.

It is not so much a matter of whether women can compete in combat effectively but whether they will be allowed. I do not feel our national security will be diminished if women enter the battlefield. I actually believe it will become enhanced.

I find it ironic that some who stand against women combat soldiers are also those who stand against VAWA. It appears that their true agenda is to defend men rather than women. What other conclusion am I to surmise?

I intended to write something about the emotional capability and impact of women in combat but it will have to wait for now. I am late getting ready for work. I do intend to come back to this post to edit it. In the meantime, I ask for forgiveness of typos, grammatical errors, and disarray of thought.