Do military women want combat jobs? The survey numbers say yes — and so do more than 9,000 combat action badges

Do military women want combat jobs? The survey numbers say yes — and so do more than 9,000 combat action badges

By Col. Ellen Haring, USAR
Best Defense guest columnist

Headlines that claim that "Few Army Women Want Combat Jobs" leave me scratching my head and wondering what constitutes a "few women" and why this is even a newsworthy headline?

I am one of the Army women who took the survey that asked us about our interest in serving in combat jobs. At a briefing in December, the Army reported the results of the propensity to serve in combat specialties survey to the Defense Advisory Council on Women in the Services. The Army reported that 22 percent of currently serving women (active, guard, and reserve) were moderately or very interested in transferring to combat specialties. According to 2011 data available at the Defense Manpower Data Center, and rounding down to the nearest 5,000 level, there are 150,000 guard and reserve women and 75,000 women on active duty. Simple math reveals that 49,500 women in the Army are interested in transferring to combat jobs. That doesn’t seem like a "few" Army women.

On April 10, 2014, the Marine Corps briefed their survey results. At a briefing at Henderson Hall in Arlington, VA, Brigadier General George Smith applauded the results of their surveys that showed an even higher level of interest. Apparently, 40 percent of women Marines want the opportunity to serve in combat jobs, bringing the total number of women in just the Army and the Marine Corps that want these opportunities to well over 50,000 women. What neither the Army nor the Marines briefed was how many men "want" combat jobs. It would have been interesting to see comparative figures.

But these data only reveal part of the story: that many women do want combat jobs, not what women are already doing. After all, we joined the Army with the expectation that we would be soldiers; we didn’t join the Peace Corps. Via a Freedom of Information Act request made to Army Human Resources Command, I received data documenting Army women’s ground combat service. Since 9/11 and ending last month, the data revealed that Army women have been awarded 9,134 combat action badges. According to Army Award Regulation 600-8-22, combat action badges are awarded to soldiers who, while serving in a hostile environment, "are actively engaging or being engaged by the enemy, and performing satisfactorily in accordance with the prescribed rules of engagement." Additionally, 1,044 Army women medics have received the combat medical badge, which requires that the medic be "assigned or attached to or under operational control of any ground Combat Arms units of brigade or smaller size, who satisfactorily perform medical duties while the unit is engaged in active ground combat, provided they are personally present and under fire." These badges are service-awarded distinctions that simply document satisfactory service in ground combat.

Other awards are even more revealing. Soldiers who receive a valor distinction, as denoted by a "V" device on their awards, have participated in "acts of heroism involving conflict with an armed enemy." Army women have received 147 Army Commendation Medals with the "V" device, 13 Bronze Star medals with the "V" device, and one Legion of Merit with the "V" device. Two Army women have received Silver Stars. The Silver Star is awarded to a soldier for "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States."

Army women alone (not including women in the other services) have received more than 10,000 ground combat awards and decorations since 9/11. But today, people continue to debate whether women, who volunteered to be soldiers, are "interested," "willing," or "able" to perform in ground combat. Our record attests to a reality that already exists.

It is time to move beyond this debate and let women perform in any capacity for which we qualify.

Ellen Haring is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.