Thursday, March 19, 2009

Women in the military ‘‘In and Out of Harm’s Way”

MC3 Joshua Nistas
Lt. Constance Denmond checks the weapon of Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class William Imfeld during a safety check on all the weapons of the members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team of the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78). Denmond is making sure the weapons have no live ammunition as the team prepares to board the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE-8) during a training exercise.
The combat exclusion law prohibits women from being assigned to submarines, Special Forces, and combat units. However, the Global War on Terrorism and the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has made this restriction difficult to comply with because there is no delineated line of combat.

Furthermore, there are critical shortages of personnel with certain specialties and there are instances where a female is the most qualified or only qualified person available for the mission. Moreover, the nature of the warfare and the face of the enemy vary from one location to another.

For these reasons the uniformed women’s participation in this war is redefining combat and how women become engaged in it. Women now perform a myriad of duties including flying combat aircraft, commanding units, providing invaluable intelligence and linguistic skills, treating the sick and wounded, manning police check points, working aircraft support, and cooking meals.

About five years ago, the Marine Corps began the Lioness Program which recruits female volunteers from the various services to be attached to all-male combat units to search Iraqi women and children who may be smuggling money or weapons to support the enemy at tactical control points along the Iraqi border. They also train Iraqi women how to search other women.

Since Muslim tradition prevents a man from touching any woman not related to him, insurgents select women to carry contraband and explosives. An increasing number of Muslim women are volunteering to become suicide bombers.

The Lioness recruits also accompany combat units searching houses. They are required to complete training in basic Marine Corps martial arts, language skills, search techniques, IED identification, the Muslim culture, how to shoot various weapons from supported firing positions and rules of engagement. Volunteers complete 30-day to 50-day tours.

Their work with combat units has often led them into relatively safe situations that have quickly become dangerous; at least three Lioness volunteers have paid the ultimate price.

Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers released their 82-minute film ‘‘Lioness” as part of the ‘‘Independent Lense” PBS series documentary in November of 2008.

The Department of Defense’s new focus on Afghanistan requires fewer personnel than the fighting in Iraq, but the dangers are just as eminent. The terrain is different and in some ways more difficult for waging war. The strong presence of Al-Qaida, the Taliban and the warlords, and the lack of infrastructure are challenging the United States’ military and its coalition forces.

Despite these conditions, our uniformed women continue to perform well, in and out of harm’s way.

Author Dr. Regina T. Akers is one of the leading historians working on the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Diversity Project.