Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A captain in Afghanistan asks: Why are we so scared of letting women into combat?

By Capt. Michael Carvelli, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum to eliminate the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule in January. I just received a memo today, which was written in April. The 1994 rule states, "Service ...

U.S. Army courtesy photo
U.S. Army courtesy photo
U.S. Army courtesy photo

By Capt. Michael Carvelli, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum to eliminate the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule in January. I just received a memo today, which was written in April.

By Capt. Michael Carvelli, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum to eliminate the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule in January. I just received a memo today, which was written in April.

The 1994 rule states, "Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground, as defined as: direct ground combat is engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel. Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, or shock effect."

Fast forward to today (or April, since I am behind): The current directed timeline is an additional 6,000 positions in 26 active/National Guard brigades and Special Operations Aviation will be opened. Last year, over 14,000 positions were opened in brigade combat teams for women to work in maneuver battalion headquarters.

No later than December 2015, the secretary of the Army is directing an assessment of the effects and development of gender-neutral standards, and the effectiveness of the strategies to integrate women into new career opportunities. The result is integration not later than January 1, 2016.

Generally speaking, the waterfall effect will start with field artillery and combat engineers, then into armor and infantry. Special Forces and Special Operations are yet to be determined at this point in time.

The Air Force elevated their sexual assault prevention officer from a lieutenant colonel to a major general, a switch from male to female included. Brigadier General Laura Richardson was the first female division deputy commander of the 1st Cavalry Division. General Ann Dunwoody was the first woman to achieve the rank of general in the military (among other glass-ceiling breaking achievements). Further back, the first black female command sergeant major was in 1974.

Interesting to note that in 1989, Captain Linda Bray led her military police company in Panama defending a dog kennel. Remember the name Molly Pitcher? In 1778, she was carrying water when her husband collapsed and she took control of the cannons. Even Jessica Lynch was a supply clerk when her company drove the wrong way and she was captured in 2003.

Are we really incorporating women into combat, or just coming to the realization that they have been in combat, just not the way in which we envision or define? I have six women in my engineer company and four of them have performed combat missions day after day. The definition from 1994 of combat is not completely in-line with counterinsurgency, but its intent is well received. These four women conduct route clearance, searching for improvised explosive devices on routes every day. Three of them signed up to operate horizontal equipment like bulldozers and dump trucks. The other is an officer, technically not a combat engineer, but no engineer officer specializes only in combat engineering. Nowhere in their contract did it say "to perform engineer missions, except those which involve direct combat." They are out doing the same tasks as their male counterparts. They drive vehicles, shoot crew-served weapons, and lead soldiers for every mission.

With these six women in my company, I have yet to have a sexually related incident and I hope I never do. We have received a lot of guidance on sexual assault and sexual harassment in the last few weeks. I never accepted sexually related activities as part of my company. I do not enforce the standard any harder than I had before Congress put the spotlight on the military. I have been unwavering in my stance: It has no place in my life, my soldiers’ lives, or in my company.

The male soldiers in my company have verbalized no issues with any of the women in the company. We are doing well as an integrated team. Yes, there are men, and yes, there are women. No one wears blinders or tries to ignore each other’s gender. We just fill the gaps where needed. One of my drivers sits on a foam roll because she is short. She is not a bad driver, she is just height disadvantaged.

Looking forward to the next few years, as glass ceilings shatter and the military better integrates men and women, will the sexual assault cases increase? Will the incorporation of men and women into all occupations lead them to treating each other equally? I hope so. I’ve tried digging into the numbers when the service academies allowed women through their gates. Maybe someone with that data can publish it for trending.

Since officers and non-commissioned officers are grown, will we be waiting until the year 2020 to see a female infantry company commander, or 2035 to see a female armor battalion command sergeant major? When will we see a female brigade combat team commander? 2040?

CPT Michael Carvelli is an engineer officer currently deployed in Afghanistan. This article represents his own personal views and not those of the engineer regiment, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, nor the U.S. government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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