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Women in Special Forces: the Debate on Combat Exclusion

Jun 08, 2012 Written by  Lani Hay, Guest Contributor

124957433The Combat Exclusion Policy is a U.S. congressional policy based on a 1988 Department of Defense restriction on women’s military service that created the “Risk Rule” for assignment of women in the military, preventing women from being assigned to units that had the risk of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture. The policy has been revised over the past 24 years but still precludes women from being assigned to direct ground combat units such as serving at the battalion level, as infantry, and in the Special Forces.

Women’s roles supporting military missions have significantly evolved during the past ten years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. The realities of modern day warfare and currently fighting in an asymmetric environment have women fighting on the front lines in specialty positions such as medics, mechanics, and military police. Additionally, to avoid the Combat Exclusion Policy as written, women are being “attached to” and not “assigned to” battalions as intelligence officers and communications officers and yet are not getting any credit for being in combat arms. Not allowing women the opportunity to receive acknowledgement for their combat experience and contributions to front-line battalions ultimately denies them from choice assignments and hinders their career advancement opportunities.

The recent partial lift of the Combat Exclusion Policy, currently under consideration, will now allow women to be “assigned to” jobs at the battalion level. However, it continues to prevent women from serving as infantry or in the Special Forces. This partial lift is the first time the Department of Defense has recognized the contributions that our female service members have been and will continue to contribute to our front line combat units, and indicates that future changes to this 24-year old Department of Defense restriction are being considered. This shows signs of progress, but until the Combat Exclusion Policy is completely lifted the military will not be able to establish a level playing field for qualified women to enter all military positions and specialties, which will greatly impact the realities and necessities of modern day warfare.

Our military has evolved in sophistication far beyond only taking into account one’s physical strength as we now consider each service member as a whole with an emphasis on possessing intellect in addition to being physically fit. Last summer during an interview at the Aspen Institute, the former Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command and Navy SEAL, Admiral Eric T. Olson said, “I would like to see female SEALs in combat roles. I don't think it's as important that they can do a lot of push-ups. I think it's much more important in what they're made of and whether or not they have the courage and the intellectual agility to do that”. The Department of Defense needs to develop gender-neutral physical requirements for specific jobs and let those requirements weed out unqualified candidates, regardless of gender.

And quite simply, mission accomplishment depends on female military service member participation. Women are being recruited specifically because of their gender for Cultural Support Teams in Afghanistan. Due to cultural differences, the all-male units that go into remote villages are unable to interact with women accounting for over half of the population. These women on the Cultural Support Teams do what their male counterparts are unable to do such as conducting female searches on burqa-clad women or engaging the female population to gather intel or build individual, group and community relationships. Although the women assigned to the Cultural Support Teams are training for and conducting the missions with their male counterparts, they are not able to receive the same recognition as their fellow male counterparts as holding an official position in Special Forces.

I experienced repercussions of the Combat Exclusion Policy first-hand when I received an appointment to attend the United States Naval Academy. When I arrived hoping to fulfill my dream of becoming a fighter pilot, I was told that I couldn’t realize this dream simply because I was a woman. It was the first time I had heard of the Combat Exclusion Policy. In 1994 the Combat Exclusion Policy was partially lifted allowing women to serve in a combat capacity flying combat aircraft and piloting combatant ships, and it has recently been further lifted allowing women to serve on submarines. The final frontier is allowing women to serve in the Special Forces, which includes the Navy SEALs.

It is based on this premise that I created a television show called “Frogwomen”, derived from the Navy SEAL insider moniker “Frogmen”. “Frogwomen” is an observational and inspirational documentary series following 24 hand-selected American women with unique and relatable backgrounds, who are given the opportunity to test their physical, mental, and emotional fortitude against a training process similar to the one to becoming a US Navy SEAL. The cast of women in the series present emotional backstories based on different backgrounds and varied ages and ethnicities, however, they share one common denominator – the will power to fight to the finish and attain success.

“Frogwomen” recently received an award at the 2012 Realscreen Summit, the definitive global non-fiction entertainment conference by a panel of judges consisted of Gary Lico of CABLEready, Bridget Whalen Hunnicutt of National Geographic, Brandon Riegg of NBC Universal, and Simon Andreae of Discovery Channel. It is my goal to develop projects and initiatives that will assist in continuing the effort to lift the “Combat Exclusion” policy completely while bringing this issue to public recognition and understanding.

Lani Hay is the President and CEO of Lanmark Technology Inc.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.

Tagged under Combat Exclusion Policy    women    Special Forces    U.S.    army    military    Iraq    Afghanistan    Navy    SEALs    United States Naval Academy    Frogmen    Frogwomen   

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