Women ready to take on new combat duties Some locals say definition of ‘front line’ changed long ago
SALISBURY — When Edie Belk signed up to join the U.S. Army, she was told that the closest she would get to combat was piloting a helicopter.
Thanks to a new order from the Pentagon, the West Rowan graduate could soon get as close as she likes.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an order Thursday removing the military’s ban on women serving in combat.
The move overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Defense officials said no physical standards will be lowered just to send more women closer to the battlefront.
Belk, private first class, hasn’t been deployed yet. She just completed her advanced training this week.
But her friends in the infantry tell her that the idea of a “front line” of battle is outdated, and women haven’t been protected from attacks.
“When you go to war now, the fight’s everywhere,” she said. “Women are in combat already. The difference is instead of being in a Humvee, they’ll be on foot so they can actually get involved in the fight. I think that’s awesome.”
Belk will start out as a helicopter mechanic, and it’s still her goal to become a pilot, but she wouldn’t mind going to the front lines.
“I feel like I’d be more of part of the Army rather than in the background,” she said.
The only drawback she can see to the decision is that men in the military might be unsupportive. Combat has been a male-dominated area for a long time, she said, and they might see women as being less capable.
“I think we’re definitely capable,” Belk said. “Some women might not be able to do it, but they’ll have to pass school and training and all that, just like men.”
Some of the JROTC members at West Rowan High School agreed Thursday.
Sierra Charles, a sophomore, said she thinks she could handle a combat situation once she is trained in the Army or the Navy.
“I think that it’s about time that they did that, because women worked just as hard to get to that place, and I think they should be able to fight as well,” she said. “It could possibly cause conflict with the men, but I think it should still happen.”
Senior Breanna Gillespie is more interested in Army forensics than combat, but she said lifting the ban was a great idea.
“I really don’t think it’ll be a problem, because I think women are just as capable as men.” Gillespie said.
But junior Destiny Blackwood has a different view.
“I don’t think women are emotionally stable enough to be on the front line,” honestly,” she said. “I know I’m not.”
When she graduates, Blackwood doesn’t plan to enter the military. She joined the JROTC program to have fun, learn, develop discipline and gain experience she can put on college applications.
Blackwood, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, said she is not against women getting the chance to fight. She just doesn’t think they should be assigned to do so.
“Throwing them out there on the front line, I don’t think that’s OK,” she said. “If a female chooses to be out there, that’s her choice if she thinks she’s mentally and emotionally stable enough.”
Vietnam veteran Ann Powlas, who served as a nurse in 1971-72, says she would not want to be assigned to a combat unit, but she does believe all women should be trained for combat.
Stationed with the 3rd Army Field Hospital, Powlas said neither the nurses nor the doctors at the hospital were armed, due to the Geneva Convention, which decreed that medical units were off limits to attack.
That didn’t matter to the other side. Powlas met another nurse who’d been in the 3rd Field Hospital who was shot in the leg by a sniper.
“A little girl came to the gate and started crying for help, so of course, the nurse went to the gate, that’s when she got shot.”
Women in the military have died in all wars, Powlas said, hundreds during World War II, nurses and others. “In Vietnam, we had snipers, grenades were tossed into the compounds.”
People were assigned to guard the hospital, even medics pulled guard duty. But the doctors did not have guns. “Some of them bought weapons on the black market,” she said.
The only training Powlas had was a short stint on a shooting range, when they shot .45-caliber weapons. “That was it.”
“Women are dying anyway, and yet, because they don’t have combat infantry specialty, they don’t get certain medals or promotions, even though they were with combat units.
“Some women could handle it better than men,” Powlas said. Some women have no business in that situation, she added. “And some men don’t belong there, either.”
“Some women are MPs, and they’ve done a good job, but they don’t get the same rewards.”
Virginia Graves, who served as an Army nurse during the Korean War, agreed that just because women weren’t fighting doesn’t mean they weren’t in danger.
Sometimes the line of battle got so close to Graves’ medical unit in Korea that they had to move back to avoid it.
“We faced some quite severe situations, and we had to keep our head in what we were doing,” Graves said
She said she agrees with the lifting of the ban.
“I wouldn’t have minded if they had done that earlier,” Graves said. “I think this is a step forward for women.”
She said she’s sure the military would not put people on the front lines if they aren’t qualified to be there, just as she could not have served as a nurse if she wasn’t properly trained.
Even when women could not enter combat at all, they went through some of the same training as the men did, said Vietnam War veteran Mae Carroll.
“I feel it’s about time that the ban is lifted,” she said. “I think that women are just as capable as men.”
Carroll served four years as a flight nurse in the 1960s. An airplane pilot would fly her in to pick up the wounded from the battlefield. She would then treat them on the plane and take them back to a hospital.
She said the qualifications for serving should be based on the job, not whether someone is male or female.
“There are women who can meet rigorous standards of combat, and there are men who cannot meet them,” she said. “I think women have right to compete with men for those combat jobs, and they should be evaluated based on competency, skills and military readiness rather than gender.”
Deirdre Parker Smith contributed to this story.