Women grunts – you know we’ve argued THAT back and forth. Lots of people pontificate about the idea, from infantrymen to Congresswomen to journalists ad nauseum. You know who we haven’t heard from? A FEMALE INFANTRYMAN – infantryman used intentionally.
Let’s change that. Oh and remember – we’re trying to have a dialectic discussion here. If you’re just wanting to stir up fuckery, then pick up and move on, don’t waste our damn time. It’s okay to disagree. Hell, this one has our own minions arguing. Mad Duo
Grunts: dialectic. You’re welcome.
Females in the infantry? Yes.
Over the last several years we’ve had much debate on the topic of women in the infantry. Support for the idea comes from many military women, some of whom, like the Lionesses of the Marine Corps and the Special Forces “enablers”, were embedded with infantry units. Some women in non-combat units who were occasionally on combat missions have also spoken out in favor of allowing women into the infantry.
Unfortunately, support also comes from ignorant morons who never served, would never serve, don’t know anyone who serves, and view military gender integration as a social justice cause. They make stupid statements like “The military has finally recognized that there are no lines or drawn battlefields anymore where they could put the ‘girls’ in the rear. If you carry a weapon, you are in the thick of it.”
Yes, some moron on the Huffington Post actually said that.
A few female combat veterans have spoken out against the idea, including Marine Captain Katie Petronio. She described the physical damage she suffered while working with infantry units, and strongly criticized the federal government’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, which was pushing women into combat arms. “…None of the committee members are on active duty or have any recent combat or relevant operational experience relating to the issue they are attempting to change.”
We’ve also heard from long-time infantrymen, many of whom oppose giving women even the opportunity to test for combat arms. They and others see the whole idea as “nothing but trouble”. Many veterans, particularly (though by no means exclusively) Cold War-era vets, seem to be dead set against any type of military gender integration, on any level.
I’ve spoken on the subject as well. My take was, allow women into the infantry, but only if they pass a screening test beforehand. And no matter what, don’t lower the standards. But my opinion only means so much. Although I’m a combat veteran, I was never infantry.
So everyone seems to be talking about women in infantry. Everyone except women who were infantry, and who actually were in combat.
Yes, they do exist.
I was recently introduced online to a woman who served seven years as a Danish Army infantry soldier and deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan she was a rifleman (her word), Carl Gustav recoilless rifle gunner and team leader. That role is roughly equivalent to a fire team leader, but with three soldiers instead of four; her role as fire team leader also made her assistant squad leader. She was in multiple firefights, had casualties in her platoon, and carried her load alongside everyone else. She’s also an American citizen, born here but raised in Denmark. She has plenty of actual infantry combat experience, and understands American culture. Her opinions on this subject deserve to be heard.
At this point, I’m sure some readers are walking away in disgust at the very idea that a woman could be infantry. See you guys later, hope you open your mind someday. On the other side of the debate, “social justice warriors” who know nothing at all about the military won’t read past the last paragraph before proclaiming, “See? Women are the same as men! Open the infantry to all women, you cismale gendernormative fascists!” Well, screw you simpleminded “I put lofty ideals over reality” idiots.
Some readers are skeptical about women in the infantry, but willing to listen to opposing views. Those are the people I’m trying to reach.
I’d like to introduce you open-minded readers to our Danish female infantry combat vet. She’s chosen to remain anonymous, so I’ll call her “Mary”. Mary has moved on from combat arms, and isn’t trying to become the spokesperson for women in the infantry. She’s just a proud infantry combat vet who agreed to talk about her experience.
I’ve spent hours talking to Mary online and on Skype. Like most infantry soldiers, she’s crude, crass and fun to talk with. Her language probably draws horrified stares when she’s around polite company (she really likes making penis jokes). She’s intelligent and has a quick wit. And no, she’s not a “big-boned” butch lesbian with a crew cut and mustache. She’s straight, married to a man she met in the army, and is pretty much the beautiful blond goddess Americans imagine all Scandinavian women to be.
Mary’s first deployment was to Kosovo, as a peacekeeper in the Mitrovica region. Kosovo experiences periodic unrest, but Mary didn’t see any combat there. Afghanistan, of course, was different.
Mary’s company went to Helmand Province in 2009 for a six-month deployment. She was in a sister company to the Danish troops in the documentary Armadillo, which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Helmand Province back then, as now, was no joke. When she returned to Helmand in 2011, it wasn’t any safer.
Mary wasn’t a hero, and doesn’t claim to have done anything more than her job. But that job was to be a real infantry soldier. Even though she’s a woman (a female woman!), she somehow pulled it off.
I’m going to identify the most common questions and objections raised when we discuss females in combat arms, then let Mary give her opinion on each one. Where applicable, my own observations and opinions will be included and will be clearly identified as such.
“Women aren’t physically capable of serving in the infantry.”
Denmark has a conscript army. Draftees have to serve at least four months, just long enough for basic training. Females aren’t subject to conscription but are welcome to volunteer. Mary joined the army at twenty-two and was in an infantry basic training platoon with thirty males and ten females. She made it through with no issues, along with five other females. Two females dropped due to medical problems and two quit (volunteers are allowed to quit, draftees aren’t).
“After those four months, if you pass with a high enough score, you can opt for ‘real’ military training,” Mary said. “After the conscript period, out of 400 conscripts, about 100 of us stayed on for what they call Reaction Force Training, which is a short-term contract where you train for eight months and then deploy to Kosovo or Afghanistan.”
Of the six females in her platoon who graduated basic, Mary and two others chose to stay infantry. But she was quick to point out that Denmark’s standards for infantry were nothing to brag about when she joined.
“Back then, our PT standards were a shambles. You had to pass a two-mile run in fifteen minutes, and do some pushups and situps. There was no special test for infantry, pretty much anyone could do it. Since Denmark really started contributing to the War on Terror, we’ve raised the standards quite a bit for combat arms. And the standards are the same for males and females.”
Mary spent the Kosovo deployment working out, which prepared her for Afghanistan. “I wasn’t in great shape before I joined the army. Since then I’ve gotten much better, although I’m still better at strength tests than running.” In Afghanistan her combat load, depending on whether she was acting as rifleman, team leader or Carl Gustav gunner, averaged about eighty pounds. According to Mary, she had no issue humping her ruck, never fell out of a march, and never had to pass off her gear to anyone else. Not even when she was carrying the twenty-one pound Gustav.
Most missions in Afghanistan last no longer than a day. Mary never had to hump a 100+ pound ruck for days or weeks at a time. She was quick to point out that she was mechanized infantry, and even on nine-day missions always had an M113 close by. Those who oppose women in the infantry will likely claim that humping eighty pounds on an eight-hour patrol is “easy” compared to the multi-day slogs with over 100 pounds grunts have endured in training and past wars.
True enough. But that’s not the standard for passing infantry school. If that’s the standard we want to maintain, then hold male infantrymen to it as well. I imagine our infantry units would lose quite a few male troops if we did.
“Males and females are physiologically different, and should be separated in the military just like they are in sports.”
Part of the argument against females in the infantry focuses on physiological differences between males and females. The best female athlete can’t compete with the best male athlete, the average woman isn’t as strong as the average male. Genders are separated in professional sports and the Olympics. That’s all true. Mary has, I think, a realistic answer to that.
“People always point to the separate male and female leagues in sports, which is a valid point — it is biology — but infantry isn’t the major leagues, SOF is. Obviously we’d love to have all our infantrymen consist of 6’5″ super-athletes, but it’s not realistic. If you’re letting in small guys who barely pass the standards, what’s the compelling argument for keeping women out?
“And the ‘I’m 3000 pounds with all my gear on, how is Sally Cheerleader going to drag my ass out of the line of fire’ argument? Jesus. EVERY platoon has at least one or two guys no one else can carry. We had one huge motherfucker that needed three to just pull him out of an APC. So is there gonna be an upper size limit, too? Some guys were so tall, they got back problems from sitting in a cramped APC. Everyone’s got their cross to carry. Everyone comes with benefits and drawbacks.”
I know a 5’4” airborne infantryman. When he graduated from infantry school he weighed 117 pounds and is maybe 130 now. With gear, he would weigh around 200. If he had to evacuate another geared-up soldier, even if the soldier was just as small, he’d still have to move about 275 pounds. It’s highly doubtful he could evacuate a casualty on his own, but nobody is talking about banning him from the infantry because of his size. And I’ve known other combat arms soldiers smaller than that. Nothing qualified them for combat arms other than their gender.
But women who prove their physical capabilities are still banned. That doesn’t make sense to me.
“Females have a higher incidence of injuries in combat.”
Based on Mary’s experience, this doesn’t apply to all women. She’s had some issues, but nothing worse than what a typical male in the infantry will suffer.
“My feet have always been my weak point, apparently. Had plantar fasciitis after my first combat tour, got over that; had some issues with the ball of my right foot after my second tour. They’re okay now, but it tends to flare up every once in a while. Other than that I’ve been stupid lucky. Never really suffered many injuries — sprained an ankle once, had some wrist pain for a while, bruised a rib. The insides of my big toes are basically numb, but that happened straight out of basic and never went away. Crap issued boots. Tore my rotator cuff a month ago, but that was after I left the infantry. Go figure.”
But objective data is objective data. If there is conclusive proof that infantry life is physically harder on women than men, it can’t be ignored. Mary just hasn’t experienced it, or seen it in the handful of other female infantry soldiers she served with. “I’ve read all the studies and data about women and high incidences of physical injuries,” Mary said, “and I don’t really know what to think.”
“Females will have hygiene problems in the field.”
According to some, women are at much greater risk of getting sick from the inherently unsanitary conditions of the battlefield. Newt Gingrich once famously said, “Females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections.” Mary spent a lot of time in muddy Afghan ditches, but never got an infection.
“I get so sick of that getting trotted out every single time by people who don’t know how vaginas work. I just … agh, I don’t know what all these ‘infections’ are I’m supposed to be getting. Urinary tract infections? Thrush? Lice? Without getting too vulgar, I dipped my cooch in more Afghan ditch-water than you can shake a stick at, and I didn’t even get a fungal infection. My FEET sure did, but the lady garden’s pretty self-cleaning apparently.”
But what about women not being able to manage their periods in combat? “I never had mine in Afghanistan, so I don’t know if that’s cheating. I have a hormonal IUD, and period stoppage is apparently a very common side effect. Besides, I wanted some kind of long-term solution in place in case of a POW situation. But if you do have periods? Tampons. Baby wipes. It’s not rocket science. I’ve changed tampons on exercise. They just go in the same hole in the ground as everything else.”
She did, however, concede one serious danger about female biology in combat: “The Taliban are like bears, they can smell period blood.”
“If females were in an infantry unit, they’d have to have completely separate sleeping areas and latrines.”
Back in the good old days when I joined (late 80’s), females were treated like an endangered species who had to be kept as far from scumbag enlisted males as possible. Young male soldiers were threatened with legal punishment and/or physical brutality for going too close to the forbidden female-barracks zone. I remember being shocked when I saw a group of coed medical officers sleeping in the same hooch back in 1990.
It’s not 1990 anymore.
In Iraq at least one Marine base had a “convoy rest stop”, a big open bay full of beds where units passing through stopped for rest. There were no separate areas for females. Nobody went insane with lust. In Afghanistan I saw Civil Affairs teams, MP platoons and an engineer detachment house males and females together. Nobody went insane with lust. When our replacements arrived in Afghanistan, they had one female soldier. She slept in the same tent with all the males, with only a couple of ponchos hung for privacy. Nobody went insane with lust. I was on a French firebase in Afghanistan, and for a time males and females shared a shower tent partitioned into individual cubicles. We used the same latrines. And nobody went insane with lust.
Mary told me about an experience she had in basic training. During a river crossing exercise every soldier had to strip naked, put all their clothing into their ruck and carry it across the river, where they dried off and put their uniforms back on. They did this as a platoon, with males and females being “battle buddies” as they crossed the river. Mary remembers what her male river crossing partner said before they undressed:
“If you promise not to look at my shriveled cock, I won’t look at your boobs.”
Her response? “Deal.”
While I don’t expect that to happen in the US military (if our drill sergeants made males and females strip in front of each other, they’d be put against a wall and shot), Mary’s experience shows us that male and female soldiers can be around each other, even naked around each other in training, without losing control.
Mary stayed with her platoon, not in separate female quarters, on both Afghanistan deployments. She thinks her willingness to share hardships with men, including their crappy quarters, helped her get accepted into infantry units. “I want to say it was the fact that I shared a tent with my squad, actually,” she said. “We live together in the field in Denmark, but during training men and women are quartered separately. My last unit, I was almost never away from my boys. Even on ranges or whatnot, usually they’d forget to book a separate room for me, and even if they did, I’d still just bunk in the same room as my platoon, because … well, they’re my platoon, where the fuck else would I be?”
And Mary doesn’t see the latrine issue as an issue at all. In the field she used a device (which she calls a “she cock”), a purpose-built plastic tube, that allows her to urinate without undressing. “It’s about the size of a dry-erase marker,” Mary said. “I kept it in a ziploc bag in my thigh pocket. It got kind of gross occasionally, but probably not more than an actual dick.” With that device she mastered the fine art of peeing while standing and in other unladylike positions. She even managed to urinate around male soldiers in some pretty difficult situations.
“Once I peed in a bottle in front of an exercise observer/controller, in a moving APC,” she remembers. “In all fairness, we’d just woken up, been activated in a hurry, and I hadn’t had my morning piss — what was I gonna do? I asked him if he was sensitive and then unzipped my pants. Then I guess I made it worse by handing the warm bottle to my platoon sergeant and asking if he needed to go, because it was still half empty. He laughed and said no, he was good.
“The controller was horrified. He was opposite me, on the gimp seat behind the driver, and he just started crawling further and further away.”
Mary is, without doubt, unique in this regard. She has no apparent issue relieving herself when and where she needs to, without being self-conscious about it. Most women wouldn’t do that. And that’s fine. Only the unique women would fit in the infantry anyway.
“Women in the infantry will have such a high pregnancy rate they’ll leave units shorthanded.”
“I’m kind of surprised pregnancies are such a huge deal in your armed forces,” Mary says. “I don’t know if it’s because we only do six month deployments. I mean, you can only get so pregnant in six months. But honestly, I’ve never even heard of anyone in the Danish Army being shipped home due to pregnancy, or having to be replaced before a deployment.”
Denmark’s army, which allows women in combat arms, apparently doesn’t have a pregnancy problem. The French army, which assigns some women to the infantry, didn’t seem to have a problem either. In the ten months I spent working with the French army in Afghanistan, I never heard of a female soldier being evacuated due to pregnancy. Yet my battalion sent home six.
The US Army doesn’t allow women into combat arms, makes concerted efforts to keep males and females separate, and even banned sex for all deployed soldiers (married couples were later allowed to have sex, and the Army eventually gave grudging permission to single soldiers). Yet we still have a pregnancy problem. Why is pregnancy a problem for us, but not for Denmark or France? Probably because we don’t allow women in combat arms, make concerted efforts to keep males and females separate, and ban sex between soldiers.
We Americans consistently refuse to acknowledge basic human needs and behavior, and stupidly think we can eliminate problems with prohibitions. Soldiers in war have always needed something to help take the edge off. Until the end of the Vietnam War, the military let soldiers blow off steam with alcohol and sex. Today, our military wants us to be chaste monks and nuns who abstain from anything that might offend someone. So we ban alcohol, sex and even pornography, force those activities underground, and pretend these bans actually accomplish something. We have senior leaders, echelons above reality, spewing ridiculous advice like “If you’re under stress you should find a productive way to relieve it, like by enrolling in an online college course” (yes, I actually heard a sergeant major say that). Yet we all know that some soldiers are drinking, having sex and watching porn.
If you’re not supposed to have sex, are you going to have birth control available? Probably not. I never saw condoms on any American base overseas, although I’ve heard some clinics had them. The French, on the other hand, always had a bucket-o-condoms sitting on their clinic’s counter. A French military doctor told me, “Our only rule about sex is, ‘be smart’.” Other than that, sex wasn’t considered the military’s concern. Denmark sounds like it has the same attitude.
“Our med center had morning after pills for the asking,” Mary said. “I was getting checked for athlete’s foot once, and there was just a freaking Tupperware box of it on a shelf. I asked, ‘Uh… do you guys need that a lot?’ The medic just shrugged and said, ‘It happens.’”
Denmark understands stressed out soldiers at war might have sex, don’t consider it evil or punishable, and take intelligent measures to avoid pregnancy. Denmark doesn’t have a pregnancy problem. America maintains ridiculous puritanical standards, clamps down on sex between soldiers, then sticks its head in the sand and acts like clamping down works. America has a pregnancy problem. Should we learn anything from these two different approaches, with their drastically different results?
Of course not. Stay the course, America. It’s been such a success so far.
But anyway, Mary’s experience with the Danish army shows that having females in the infantry beside males doesn’t automatically an equal out-of-control pregnancy rate.
“If we allow women into combat arms, we’ll have to lower the standards.”
This, I think, is a valid concern. Far too often, our Army chooses political correctness over combat effectiveness. Soldiers can be deployed downrange barely able to operate a weapon, without knowing how to call for fire or a medevac, but guaranteed to have received multiple sexual harassment briefings. My worry – shared by many – is that women will be allowed into the infantry, but only about 5% of them will pass the first integrated infantry course. The Army, of course, will worry that it appears sexist. And the second mixed class will magically have a 90% female pass rate.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The Marine Corps hasn’t lowered its standards, and so far not a single female has passed the difficult infantry officer course. A handful of females have passed the enlisted infantry school, reportedly without being given any breaks. That’s how I, and Mary, believe it should be. The standards are the standards, and stay as they are.
“Women can be in the Danish infantry if they pass THE standard, not an adjusted standard,” Mary says. “We’re even welcome to join our Special Forces, but no one’s passed so far. They have a pre-training course similar to Ranger school, where you get a tab, and I’ve heard of one woman passing that. They’ve just stuck to their guns with the standards, and so far no one’s been able or willing. I understand that Americans are worried that standards will be lowered, or that COs will feel compelled to look the other way and ‘pass’ substandard women in order to look good. And that’s a relevant worry. But Jesus, grow a fucking pair. Every single lowered standard or ‘benefit’ that women have ever had in the military was given to them by well-meaning, misguided men. It’s just not doing anyone any favors. I’ve heard some people argue, ‘Maybe we could lower the standards a little, just to begin with, until enough women have joined’, but that’s pure poison. Just one woman who actually passes the standards will have a much greater effect on soldiers’ opinions than five substandard women.”
Just one woman who actually passes the standards will have a much greater effect on soldiers’ opinions than five substandard women.
I can’t make the point any better than that. If we open the infantry to females, and do it right, we will likely only have a tiny number of females who are willing and able to do it. But those few women will be true warriors, who earned their right to stand and fight among their brothers and sisters.
Mary has shown us that it’s possible for a certain type of woman to serve in the infantry. A woman who’s physically capable, isn’t overly sensitive to “harassment”, likes making penis jokes, can fling insults right back at guys who insult her, and doesn’t mind getting dirty, or getting shot at, or shooting people. There aren’t many woman like that, but they do exist.
I’m an American. I don’t believe in equality, I believe in equality of opportunity. I’m not arguing for American women’s right to be equal; who the hell wants to be equal? I want to give American women the right to prove they’re better. Not better than men, but better than anyone who can’t or won’t hack it.
Mary, a citizen of the greatest country that has ever existed, didn’t have the right in America to prove she’s better. But Denmark gave her the right. She took advantage of that right, passed THE standard, served her country as a combat infantry soldier, and will forever hold her head high because of it. She isn’t proud because she was Special Forces, or because she was so amazingly brave. She’s proud because she was just a regular Jo, who did her best. I respect her for that. And I wish America would have given her the chance to be an infantry soldier with an American flag on her shoulder, instead of a Danish flag.
And consider this: Mary is still a young woman. If she chose, she could come back to the US and join the US Army. And even with seven years of infantry experience behind her, even with two deployments as a grunt where she proved she can pull her weight under fire, she wouldn’t be allowed to even try infantry school. But a seventeen-year old, 5’4”, 110 pound male who can barely pass a PT test WOULD.
Tell me how keeping Mary out of the infantry is fair. Or logical. Or how it helps America win wars.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.