WASHINGTON, D.C. — If or when the Pentagon lets women become infantry troops – the country’s front-line warfighters – how many women will want to?
The answer is probably not many.
Interviews with a dozen female soldiers and Marines showed little interest in the toughest fighting jobs. They believe they’d be unable to do them, even as the Defense Department inches toward changing its rules to allow women in direct ground combat jobs.
In fact, the Marines asked women last year to go through its tough infantry officer training to see how they would fare. Only two volunteered and both failed to complete the fall course. None has volunteered for the next course this month. The failure rate for men is roughly 25 percent.
For the record, plenty of men don’t want to be in the infantry either, though technically could be assigned there involuntarily, if needed. That’s rarely known to happen.
“The job I want to do in the military does not include combat arms,” Army Sgt. Cherry Sweat said of infantry, armor and artillery occupations. She installed communications equipment in 2008 in Iraq but doesn’t feel mentally or physically prepared for fighting missions.
“I enjoy supporting the soldiers,” said Sweat, stationed in South Carolina. “The choice to join combat arms should be a personal decision, not a required one.”
Much has happened for women since then in American society and the military. Foremost in the military is perhaps that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars changed the face of combat and highlighted the need for women to play new roles.
Women already can be assigned to some combat arms jobs such as operating the Patriot missile system or field artillery radar, but offensive front-line fighting jobs will be the hardest nut to crack.
“If there are women able to meet the required standard, then why not let them fight if they so desire?” said Maj. Elizabeth L. Alexander. Since 2002, she hass served in Pakistan once and Iraq three times in supply and maintenance jobs and is now with the 3rd Army in South Carolina.
More than 200,000 U.S. women have served in the wars, 12 percent of the Americans sent. Of some 6,600 Americans killed, 152 were women; 84 of them were killed by enemy action and 68 in nonhostile circumstances such as accidents, illness and suicide.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been studying reports from the services to update him on progress with the newly opened positions, what’s being done to pursue gender-neutral physical standards and what barriers remain and whether more positions can be opened.
Panetta could announce the next step in the coming weeks, which might mean anything from further openings to simply further study.
“Yes, there may be a small number of women who are interested,” said Katy Otto, spokeswoman for the Service Women’s Action Network, an equal opportunity advocacy group. “But does that mean they should be barred from entry?”
Changing the rules for a potential future draft would be a difficult proposition.
The Supreme Court has ruled that because the Selective Service Act is aimed at creating a list of men who could be drafted for combat – and women are not in combat jobs – American women aren’t required to register upon turning 18 as all males are. If combat jobs open to women, Congress would have to decide what to do about that law.