For U.S. military helicopter pilots in Afghanistan, a stint flying in Kandahar province is the closest thing to a soft assignment. There are fewer attacks and fewer casualties than in the hot spots of Helmand and Paktika. The schedule is less intense and the skies, far from Kabul, are clear. “We swap out crews in places like Helmand, Tarin Kowt and Bagram and go to Kandahar for a break,” says Major M.J. Hegar. “While I was on a break, we got shot down.”
A convoy of American soldiers had been hit by a roadside bomb. Three were injured and needed to be airlifted back to base. The search and rescue team couldn’t know it, but they were flying into a trap – the first such ambush of the war. It was July 2009. From now on, the Taliban would target Medevac crews.
As the chopper landed, a rifle bullet smashed the windscreen and fragmented, hitting Major Hegar in the arm. Going by the book, they let the special forces medics out and took off to assess the damage, but finding nothing serious enough to compromise the mission, flew back into the fight.
By the time they returned, the enemy had set up a heavy, belt-fed machine gun. Bullets ruptured one of the helicopter’s fuel tanks and punctured the other. The crew somehow managed to get the casualties on board without anyone else being wounded, but could only fly two miles before crash landing.
Again, they came under attack. Crouched behind makeshift shields of body armour, they fired back at their assailants, defending the injured soldiers until help arrived. “One of the patients we had was female. She got a little bit hysterical, crying and scared – and I’ve seen men do that too, because sometimes when the bullets are flying you’re faced with your own mortality and you understand that maybe you shouldn’t be in combat,” remembers Hegar.
“My gunner, who is like a brother to me, turned and said ‘Can you believe her? This is why they shouldn’t let women drive convoys.’ I said ‘Are you serious?’ He didn’t see me as a woman and thought he was talking to another guy, almost. I was a comrade, a colleague, a warrior.”
Major Mary J. Hegar wears a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross, but as a result of the Pentagon’s combat exclusion policy she cannot apply for a range of jobs deemed unsuitable for women. Together with three other female soldiers, from the Marines and the Army Reserves, she is suing the Department of Defence, arguing that the rule is unsuitable for counter-insurgency operations, in which the front line is everywhere and nowhere.
Although she loves serving in the National Guard – “I’m what we call a ‘mission hacker’. I’m in it for the adrenaline, not the rank” – she is leaving the armed forces. The position she wants most, as a tactics officer deploying with special forces teams, directing helicopters from the ground, is closed to her. “I would have been good at that job and I would have enjoyed it,” she says.
“People are trying to make it an argument about whether or not women should be in combat. But women are in combat and they’ve always been in combat, since the American Revolutionary War – the entire history of our country. This policy does not keep women out of combat. All it does is hurt the women who are in combat, without recognising what they’re doing or giving them equal opportunities.”
Almost 15% of the 1.4 million soldiers in the USA’s active duty military are female. Around 280,000 women have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The lawsuit, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Women’s Action Network, claims that 238,000 posts are closed to women. Because combat experience is highly valued, the exclusion policy inevitably holds women back. In the Army, around 80% of the general officers are promoted from combat arms roles.
Under the current policy, women can be “attached” to all male units and fight alongside men, but they cannot choose to do so long term, day after day. The forty-six women in Marine Captain Zoe Bedell’s Female Engagement Team deployed to Afghanistan together. They trained separately from the men, but were then assigned to infantry units in pairs, meaning they had not met any of their comrades.
“Any time someone new comes into a unit they have to prove themselves. But the scepticism that we faced as women was significantly greater,” Bedell says. “If a Marine meets a man who’s bad at his job, it’s just that he’s bad at it. If a Marine meets a woman who’s bad at her job, it’s like all women ever are incapable.” Respect was grudging and hard won.
“I assure you that the Taliban did not look at the unit and say ‘there’s women there, let’s not go after them.’ When you’re under attack everyone’s fighting back. You’re all shooting, all responding the way you’ve been trained, and women responded very well in those situations,” Bedell says.
On patrol, the exclusion policy led to odd compromises and much confusion. “You could not send a woman in to clear a room that might have Taliban in it, so the question is ‘Can she be the second person in? The third person in?’ We were literally having these debates. ‘Does she have wait thirty seconds or ten minutes?’ Silly things like that.”
Last year, researchers asked hundreds of officers taking courses at the Army War College what they thought of the policy and concluded that “the current battlefield makes application of the existing rules regarding women and combat unhelpful at least, irrelevant for the most part, and a compromising issue at worst.” A commission set up by Congress recommended that the policy “should be eliminated immediately because, given current practices for employing women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems obsolete.”
There is still significant resistance within the military. Writing in the Marine Corps Gazette, Sergeant Major David Devaney argued that the infantry places physical and mental demands on soldiers that the vast majority of women are not equipped to handle. “I have gone as many as six weeks without bathing,” he added. “I think this would be a serious problem for women.”
Marine Captain Katie Petronio shared her personal experience in the same publication, describing how two tours to Iraq and Afghanistan gradually wore her down, to the point where a compressed spine, muscle atrophy and restless leg syndrome made her incapable of doing her job. “I am physically not the woman I once was and my views have greatly changed on the possibility of women having successful long careers while serving in the infantry,” she wrote. “Should the Marine Corps attempt to fully integrate women into the infantry, we as an institution are going to experience a colossal increase in crippling and career-ending medical conditions for females.”
In September, the Marines invited women to take the Infantry Officer Course for the first time, to see if they could withstand the notoriously gruelling three month challenge. Only two women volunteered and neither passed: one failed the physical endurance test and the other dropped out injured. One in four men drops out, on average, beaten by the punishing schedule, the lack of sleep and rations or the deliberately disorienting war games. So far, there are no female takers for the next course, which begins in spring.
“Keep in mind that you go through this three month ordeal. It’s very physically demanding, you risk injury, and when you come out at the end of it, you’re not an infantry officer, because for women this is just an experiment,” says Bedell. “There’s a lot of downside and it’s easy to understand why there haven’t been a lot of volunteers.”
Although the prospect of female infantry soldiers gets the most attention, the exclusion shuts off many other options. Women can fly planes, but cannot drive tanks. Bedell is a graduate of Princeton University. She studied Arabic for three years, spent a year in Lebanon and learned Farsi when she returned. “In a lot of ways, being an intelligence officer would have been a good choice, because it matches my skills and my background, but that option wasn’t open to me,” she says. Fed up with being held back, she left the armed forces and now works for an investment bank.
“People are getting out because they don’t feel that their skills are being taken advantage of, but also because of the way that you’re treated,” says Bedell. “It wears you down. It’s degrading. It’s hard to decide that you’re going to put up with that when there are options elsewhere.” Prejudice against female soldiers is often openly expressed. According to confidential surveys, one in four women in the armed forces has been sexually assaulted by a colleague, but fewer than one in seven of the attacks are reported, and of those that are, just 6% result in a court-martial. The Pentagon estimates that there are 19,000 such assaults per year.
“I think women will have the opportunity to serve in combat roles relatively quickly,” says Bedell. “The other side of it is the cultural and organisational shift to view women as equals, and that’ll certainly be longer in coming.”
Last February, the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, opened 14,000 new positions, meaning women can now serve as tank mechanics, radar operators and artillery co-ordinators. Canada and Australia have already removed all barriers to women in the military. The UK prohibits women from joining units whose primary purpose is “to close with and to kill the enemy face to face” – essentially the same compromise as the USA.
“I think the military wants to maintain an intimidating, door-kicking, you-don’t-want-us-in-your-country image, and it might be harder to sell that to some cultures if it’s women kicking those doors in. But the type of woman it’s going to take to get to that position is going to be just as scary,” says Hegar.
The lawsuit has attracted plenty of criticism, both within the military and from armchair commanders, posting their opinions online. One man wrote that “these women should be court-martialled and executed so that they can earn the Purple Hearts that they’re wearing.” Hegar has stopped reading the comments.
Now that the legal documents have been filed in San Francisco, the government has two months to decide whether or not to defend the policy. More than likely, the plaintiffs will be called to back up their demand for equal treatment in court. “I see it as my duty,” Hegar says. “This is tying the hands of commanders in the field who have well-qualified women that they need to use and can’t. We owe it to the military and our country to do this.”