Women in combat: Q&A with a female soldier

Liz Goodwin

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday that the Pentagon is dropping its remaining rules excluding women from ground combat. The decision ends a nearly 20-year ban that kept women from about 230,000 positions.

Women are already on the front lines—more than 150 have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan—but are in roles categorized as "combat support." This has led some servicewomen, including a group that filed suit against the military, to argue that they take on similar combat risks as their male peers but are not granted the same recognition for their service.

The change will most likely allow women to become battlefield medics and take on other dangerous combat jobs, but it's still unclear if the military's elite special operations jobs will be open to them, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Shannon McLaughlin, a U.S. Army major in the Massachusetts National Guard and a judge advocate general, shares her thoughts on the announcement. She has been in the military for 15 years. (McLaughlin is currently a plaintiff in a suit challenging the federal government's Defense of Marriage Act, which denies military benefits to her spouse because McLaughlin is married to a woman.)

Q: What do you think of the recent decision by the Pentagon to open up all combat roles to women?

A: It's a great move. I've been in for 15 years, and that includes the last 10 years that we've been in war, and I think that it will be an opportunity for us to truly reflect what's happening in the field. The reality is that women might be in noncombat or combat-support roles, but they frequently end up in combat, and we've certainly had many women injured and killed in combat. I think it's really in many ways a reflection of reality.

Q: Were you ever engaged in combat while you were deployed?

Yes. I've been fired upon. I've fired. I was never injured in the line of duty by enemy engagement or anything like that. But sure, like most people that ended up deployed, we found ourselves in very tough combat-like situations from time to time. We were at a forward operating base and enemy fire was coming in, and we had to take cover and return fire. It was a very short duration, but it was nonetheless very real and very harrowing. (McLaughlin was deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom.)

Q: What do you think of the arguments that having women in combat roles will negatively affect unit cohesion and that women aren't suited for ground combat?

We already have this situation where men and women are fighting next to each other. They're taking shrapnel from IEDs; they're taking fire together. Some women won't be good at combat; some men won't be good at combat. Even within our military there's those who are better suited to carrying rifles [than others]. It should be based on ability, aptitude and willingness.

Q: How do you think the move will be received within the military?

I'm full-time military and I went to work yesterday and today, and it wasn't a hot topic. It was just like, 'Oh, OK, yup, that was coming.' It was like the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' I think the military does an extremely good job at adapting to what our leaders and commander in chief tell us to do. We'll do that here, too. There may be some realignments that have to go on, some attitudes may have to shift. We'll do fine like we always do.

Q: Have you ever felt like being a woman has held you back in the military?

I certainly have felt at times that women were looked at as though we couldn't perform the task up to par, and it was assumed that we couldn't. If there can be any benefit to having a wartime situation, it's that women have truly been tested in these [combat-support] roles and have done incredibly well. They've served just as admirably as their male counterparts. We've gone through all the same tests.

Q: If the nation ever needs to reinstate a draft, do you think it should include women?

Yes, it should be open to women. Why not? We haven't had a draft since Vietnam, and things have changed in our country. We have an all-volunteer now, and I think almost everybody would prefer it stay that way. But if we had a draft, I would think that everybody should be included ... and we would have the same criteria for people to be excused from it as in Vietnam.

Q: How has the military changed since you enlisted 15 years ago?

It's become more diverse. I think it's become more inclusive. We have more women in the military than we did 15 years ago. We finally have the ability for gay and lesbians to [openly] serve. My first five years of service it was a very different landscape. Women were on the periphery; now we are right there. There's a handful of female generals and female colonels.

Q: If combat roles had been open to you when you enlisted, would you have considered taking one on?

Earlier in my career, if Special Forces was open to me I certainly would have considered it. It's too late for me in my career now. But when I was just starting out and very eager, that's when people do things like that. I've been in many situations, and you look around the room and some of the men, even on the JAG side ... some of them will have those Special Forces tags on their shoulders. That is a great honor and a great achievement for a military person to have. That type of designation or accomplishment can mean promotions earlier, other opportunities because you've proven yourself. That was never open to me or any other women. I would love to see the next generation of military women have that option.