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Do women want the toughest fighting jobs?

Jan. 5, 2013 - 10:17AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 5, 2013 - 10:17AM  |  
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WASHINGTON — If or when the Pentagon lets women become infantry troops — the country's front-line warfighters — how many women will want to?

The answer is probably not many.

Interviews with a dozen female soldiers and Marines showed little interest in the toughest fighting jobs. They believe they'd be unable to do them, even as the Defense Department inches toward changing its rules to allow women in direct ground combat jobs.

In fact, the Marines asked women last year to go through its tough infantry officer training to see how they would fare. Only two volunteered and both failed to complete the fall course. None has volunteered for the next course this month. The failure rate for men is roughly 25 percent.

For the record, plenty of men don't want to be in the infantry either, though technically could be assigned there involuntarily, if needed. That's rarely known to happen.

"The job I want to do in the military does not include combat arms," Army Sgt. Cherry Sweat said of infantry, armor and artillery occupations. She installed communications equipment in 2008 in Iraq but doesn't feel mentally or physically prepared for fighting missions.

"I enjoy supporting the soldiers," said Sweat, stationed in South Carolina. "The choice to join combat arms should be a personal decision, not a required one."

Added Marine Gunnery Sgt. Shanese L. Campbell, who had administrative duties during her service in Iraq: "I actually love my job. ... I've been doing it for 15 years, so I don't plan on changing my job skills."

She's an administrative officer at Twentynine Palms in California, serving in a once all-male tank battalion as part of a Marine Corps experiment to study how opening more jobs to women might work.

A West Point graduate working in the Pentagon estimates she's known thousands of women over her 20-year army career and said there's no groundswell of interest in combat jobs among female colleagues she knows.

She asked to remain anonymous because in the military's warrior culture, it's a sensitive issue to be seen as not wanting to fight, she said. But her observations echoed research of the 1990s, another time of big change in the military, when interviews with more than 900 Army women found that most didn't want fighting jobs and many felt the issue was being pushed by "feminists" not representing the majority, said RAND Corporation sociologist Laura Miller.

Much has happened for women since then in American society and the military. Foremost in the military is perhaps that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars changed the face of combat and highlighted the need for women to play new roles.

Women already can be assigned to some combat arms jobs such as operating the Patriot missile system or field artillery radar, but offensive front-line fighting jobs will be the hardest nut to crack. Many believe women eventually could be in the infantry, but the Pentagon for years has been moving slowly on that front.

In April 1993, the Pentagon directed the opening of combat aviation occupations and warship assignments to females; the Navy and Air Force responded by opening thousands of jobs. Neither of those steps put women in the most lethal occupations such as infantry or tank units. Policy barred them not only from specific jobs but also from doing traditional jobs in smaller units closest to the front.

That arrangement came apart in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battle lines were jagged and insurgents could be anywhere. Some women in support jobs, including logistics officers bringing supply convoys to troops, found themselves in firefights or targeted by roadside bombs. Women were sent on patrol with men to search and get information from local women whose culture didn't allow male soldiers to do so.

Developments over the past decade have been a main argument from those wanting more openings for women. So has the issue of equal opportunity and the fact that combat service gives troops an advantage for promotions, the lack of it leaving women disadvantaged in trying to move to the higher ranks.

"If there are women able to meet the required standard, then why not let them fight if they so desire?" said Maj. Elizabeth L. Alexander. Since 2002, she's served in Pakistan once and Iraq three times in supply and maintenance jobs and is now with the 3rd Army in South Carolina.

More than 200,000 U.S. women have served in the wars, 12 percent of the Americans sent. Of some 6,600 Americans killed, 152 were women; 84 of them were killed by enemy action and 68 in nonhostile circumstances such as accidents, illness and suicide.

In February, the department altered rules to reflect realities of the decade, opening some new jobs and officially allowing women into many jobs they were already doing, but in units closer to the fighting. The new policy still bans women from being infantry soldiers, Special Operations commandos, and others in direct combat, but opened some 14,000 previously male-only positions, mostly in the Army, such as artillery mechanic and rocket launcher crew member. More than 230,000 positions remain closed to women, who are 15 percent of the 1.4 million in all branches.

Hundreds of female soldiers began moving into once all-male battalions, taking jobs they already had trained for, such as in personnel, intelligence, signal corps, medicine and chaplaincy. Forty-five women Marines similarly went to battalions as part of a large research effort to gauge how women might do.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been studying reports from the services to update him on progress with the newly opened positions, what's being done to pursue gender-neutral physical standards and what barriers remain and whether more positions can be opened.

Panetta could announce the next step in the coming weeks, which might mean anything from further openings to simply further study.

"Yes, there may be a small number of women who are interested," said Katy Otto, spokeswoman for the Service Women's Action Network, an equal opportunity advocacy group. "But does that mean they should be barred from entry?"

Lory Manning of Women's Research and Education Institute said female interest could be greater than expected.

"I think they'll be surprised by the number that will come forward," said the 25-year Navy veteran who retired in the 1990s. She said the Navy faced a similar question then: Did women want to go to sea?

"If you asked someone in 1985 about going to sea, she would have been thinking: 'Girls don't do that and so I don't want to do that,'" Manning said. "But when push came to shove, they did it, they loved it."

Changing the rules for a potential future draft would be a difficult proposition.

The Supreme Court has ruled that because the Selective Service Act is aimed at creating a list of men who could be drafted for combat — and women are not in combat jobs — American women aren't required to register upon turning 18 as all males are. If combat jobs open to women, Congress would have to decide what to do about that law.

Associated Press writers Julie Watson in San Diego, Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia, S.C., Rob Gillies in Toronto and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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