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Military upgrades women’s roles in combat

Posted on 04.10.2013

The January Pentagon decision to lift the ban on women in combat missions opened up many new opportunities for women in the U.S. armed forces.
Though many students are worried about getting a job after graduation,  freshman psychology, pre-occupational therapy major Maggie Patterson knows that she will have a career for at least six years.
“With the ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Core] scholarship that they have, you can go into the [National] Guard component of it or the reserve,” Patterson said. “… So I’ll be an officer in the National Guard, but I’ll also have my master’s [degree] in occupational therapy, and I’ll have that job, too.”
Patterson said that she chose the ROTC  and the University of Indianapolis over the Army’s occupational therapy program at Baylor University  because the UIndy program allows her to focus on her education while still being in the military.
“With ROTC, I’ll go to basic [training] this summer and AIT [Advanced  Individual Training] next summer. Usually it’s [one] right after the other, but I didn’t want to miss any school,” Patterson said. “Because I’m in a specific program, so I didn’t want to mess it up.”
Patterson’s grandfather was in the military during World War II, and her uncle was in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Some of her friends also have joined the military. This made serving in the military less intimidating to her.
But what helped her make the decision was talking to a family friend who was serving about what it is like to be a woman in the military. According to Patterson, her friend loved it.
Patterson goes to drill once a month and takes a one credit hour ROTC course at UIndy. She said that just after the Pentagon lifted the ban on women in combat, a female sergeant pulled her and other recruits aside.
“She was just talking to us about that [the ban being lifted], and she was saying she particularly didn’t like it, because she thought they were trying to prove we couldn’t do it in terms of we aren’t built the same,” Patterson said. “She was talking about how, ‘you can’t pick up this … 300-and-some-pound guy with a bunch of different stuff—all his bags and everything—and carry him.’”
According to Patterson, the sergeant said that if a man cannot do it, people will make up excuses, but if a woman cannot do it, people will say it is because she is naturally weaker. The sergeant admonished them to pull their own weight, not to accept favors and to show everyone that they deserve respect by respecting themselves as women and as soldiers.
Chair and Professor of History and Political Science Lawrence Sondhaus said that gaining the respect of others always has been an obstacle for  women in the military.
Sondhaus said that the first instance of women signing up in large numbers was in World War II. The U.S. military created separate auxiliary formations for women, keeping the sexes segregated. The formations had names such as the Women’s Army Core (WACs), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and the Air Corps’ Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
“On the one hand, they included women and they gave women the opportunity to serve. On the other hand, they were distinctly in these separate formations,” Sondhaus said. “In hindsight, it was kind of demeaning that they gave them these cutesy acronym names. But at the time, it was an opportunity to serve.”
In 1948, Sondhaus said, the military abolished the separate formations and integrated women into the normal ranks of each branch. This did not, however, mean that women were allowed to do the same jobs as men.
The only position in which women could hold a higher rank than men was as  quartermaster,  for one main reason.
“The biggest roadblock to advancement for women in the U.S. Military was that they were not allowed at the service academies. West Point,  Annapolis, Colorado Springs … were still male-only,” Sondhaus said. “And that did not change until after the Vietnam War.”
Sondhaus said that the lift of the ban on women serving in combat roles had been slowly coming for a long time.
Sondhaus said that although it had always been assumed based on tradition and politics, it was not formally banned until President Clinton signed it in to law in 1994.
Sondhaus said that the number of women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that women already were on the front lines.
“The line of what’s combat and what’s not combat has gotten kind of blurry,” Sondhaus said. “So part of lifting the ban has really been just to acknowledge something that’s already happening anyway. It’s that women are serving in these roles, and they are serving in harm’s way.”
As a member of the National Guard, Patterson does not plan to be in combat. She said that she may stay in the National Guard after her first contract expires. But with a hectic course schedule and ROTC, making that decision is not anywhere near the top of her to-do list.
“I just feel like it [lifting the ban]opened up a lot of opportunities, and it’s good leadership skills,” Patterson said. “I was really worried that with my schedule, with the National Guard and everything, it was going to mess everything up … So I just have to balance everything. But I think in the long run it will help me.”


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