Few female troops could seek combat duty
WASHINGTON -- If or when the Pentagon lets women become infantry troops -- the country's front-line warriors -- 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 have 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 they 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 Iraq but doesn't feel mentally or physically prepared for fighting missions.
Women can be assigned to some combat arms jobs such as operating the Patriot missile system or field artillery radar.
In the 1990s, interviews with more than 900 Army women found that most didn't want fighting jobs and many felt the issue was being pushed by "feminists" not representing the majority, said RAND Corp. sociologist Laura Miller.
Much has happened for women since then in American society and the military.
In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, battle lines were jagged and insurgents could be anywhere. Some women in support jobs, including logistics officers bringing supply convoys to troops, found themselves in firefights or targeted by roadside bombs. Women were sent on patrol with men to search and get information from local women whose culture didn't allow male soldiers to do so.
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.
In February, the Defense Department altered rules to reflect new realities opening some new jobs and officially allowing women into many jobs they were already doing, but in units closer to fighting.
The new policy still bans women from being infantry soldiers, Special Operations commandos and others in direct combat. Some women think gender should not be an automatic disqualifier for combat.
"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?"
Lory Manning of Women's Research and Education Institute said female interest could be greater than expected. "If you asked someone in 1985 about going to sea, she would have been thinking: 'Girls don't do that and so I don't want to do that,' " said the 25-year Navy veteran. "But when push came to shove, they did it, they loved it."