It Happened To Me: I Served In Combat, Despite The "Ban" On Women In Combat

To hear a bunch of civilians celebrating a decision from the Pentagon that essentially only ratifies reality made me angry.

The news flashed around the Internet on the 23rd that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would announce the opening of combat positions in the US military to women, lifting a nearly 20-year ban on women in combat.

And lo, Twitter celebrated, and feminists rejoiced. People reblogged things on Tumblr and waved metaphorical pompoms. Meanwhile, I yawned. Where the hell have all you people been?

Women have been in combat. We'll disregard the women who fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, who took advantage of lax physical exam rules to dress as men and enlist. The advent of more detailed medical exams on entry shut women out of that route when World War I rolled around. No, we'll skip to the 21st century and the first US military operation of the new millennium.

The first woman killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom was Lori Piestwa, a Hopi woman assigned to an Army support and maintenance division ambushed outside Nasiriyah, Iraq. The ambush took place on 23 March 2003, just four days after the fighting started; SPC Piestwa's fellow soldiers Jessica Lynch and Shoshanna Johnson were injured in the ambush.

Since Lori Piestwa, over 800 women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 139 have died. They became casualties while serving in “non-combat” positions in a theater of war in which someone forgot to inform the enemy that there is any such thing as a “non-combat” soldier.

The history of women in modern combat roles doesn't start with 2003, however. In the US Navy, enlisted women have been serving on board surface warships since 1993, the year before the Pentagon's ban on women in ground combat positions was instituted. While barred from submarine service, women serve in every role men do on board Navy destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers, including those that deal with offensive and defensive weapons systems.

Women in the Army have been flying helicopters, including the Apache gunship, since about a year after women were barred from artillery and infantry positions. Women in the Air Force have been flying in combat aircraft since 1993 as well, although they still make up only about 2% of the fighter pilot force.

So to hear a bunch of civilians celebrating a decision from the Pentagon that essentially only ratifies reality made me angry. The cheers of “FINALLY women will be allowed in combat” made me want to scream and hit people with my rack of medals.

The Navy Achievement Medal on my uniform was for my role in launching Tomahawk missiles during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is exactly as close to combat as the crew of a warship gets in these days when grand naval battles are obsolete.

Women on the ground were taking fire, as Piestwa and her squadmates proved so early on. Women in combat aircraft were dropping bombs and firing guns. This policy change doesn't even mean pay parity -- women have had that.

Women stationed in combat theaters already receive the same combat pay that men do, and have for years. My own pay stubs from my time in the Persian Gulf prove it.

What this policy from the Pentagon does offer to women is equality in career opportunity.

That is what should be celebrated here: that finally women will receive the same career opportunities as men in the US military, where promotion and advancement are often weighted toward those with combat experience, particularly for those in leadership roles.

Well, it offers equality for the most part. The services have three years to implement it, and are allowed to petition for exceptions to the rule.

This makes it likely that some jobs, particularly those in the ultra-macho, obscenely hypermasculine world of special forces, are going to continue to be male-only. The major difference is that right now, the Army and Marine Corps must change the rules in order to allow women into the infantry and artillery.

After this policy change goes into effect, it will take a rule change to keep women out. Anyone who believes that the services won't petition to ensure some roles remain closed to women is living in fantasyland, as a macho culture doesn't do an about-face maneuver in a day, or even in three years.

The whole furor surrounding the Pentagon's policy change highlights for me the problems I have with progressive politics as a woman veteran. Too often the military is ignored, and then when the left does take notice as they have here, they celebrate the wrong achievement and in the process erase the presence of women combat veterans.

These women who have seen fighting are often struggling to be taken seriously as their male counterparts are, and God help them if part of their trauma involved sexual violence.

The Veteran's Administration does a poor job serving women veterans, and this change in Pentagon policy will do nothing to change that. Nor will it change the fact that women in the armed services are at higher risk of sexual assault than dying in combat, a problem that the military structure in general seems unable or unwilling to address.

This policy will not change the fact that single mothers in the military are often pressured to give up custody of their children or get out. It won't change the attitude that women who get pregnant unexpectedly are only doing it to avoid deployment, or the million other misogynist attitudes that actively hamper women's career advancement.

We can hope, of course, that as more women move into traditionally male-only jobs in the military, the macho culture that defines masculinity as opposed to all things (and therefore all people) feminine will change.

That is the hope that this policy change represents, the hope that one day a woman in the military will be more likely to be shot by the enemy than raped by one of her co-workers.

Let's make sure we celebrate what this shift actually does and the hope it brings us, rather than making women combat veterans invisible in our haste to rejoice that the Pentagon has finally caught up with reality.