Officials Describe Successes, Challenges of Women in Combat

In a panel discussion at the 2014 Military Reporters and Editors Conference at the Army and Navy Club here today, officials from the military service branches said leaders will continue exploring avenues to broaden career opportunities for women in combat.

Army Col. Linda Sheimo, command programs and policy division chief, reported that not only have women been officially in combat with men since 2003, but have kept ties that long pre-date their involvement in the Iraq War.

“In fact, women have been serving the Army since 1775, maybe not in a paid capacity, but they’ve been a critical element of our successes,” Sheimo said.

According to the Defense Department, the Iraq War was a seminal event for U.S. military women, with more than 206,000 having served in the Middle East since March 2003.

Direct ground combat exclusion ended in 2013

In January 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for female service members.

As military women continue to forge their place in history and the combat realms, the imperative for leadership and command to foster an inclusive environment increases, said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael Samarov, Marine Corps force innovation office plans officer.

“Show me a well-led unit; it’ll have good cohesion and morale,” Samarov said. “Show me a unit that’s not well-led; cohesion and morale are going to be a problem.”

Social science, Samarov explained, indicates that task cohesion from being able to do a job as well or better than the other members of a unit leads to social cohesion.

“We have got to be sure that the first female Marines [who] embark on these last 20 very physically demanding specialties can, without a doubt, do the job,” she said.

Women serving aboard submarines

According to Navy Cmdr. Renee Squier, head of the Office of Women's Policy for the Chief of Naval Personnel, plans are now in place to assign female enlisted sailors to the crews of ballistic missile submarines.

The Defense Department advised Congress in 2010 it planned to do away with the ban on women on submarines. Women commissioned officers have been serving on submarines since 2011.

With a 20-percent female population goal for each unit in coming months, Squier said, the mix facilitates a diversity of talent and creates a "good ecosystem" for women submariners.

Similarly, the Air Force will make a “coordinated effort” to open positions such as special tactics officer, combat control team, special operations weather officer and various enlisted specialties in Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Education and Training Command, and the Air Staff, said Air Force Lt. Col. Veronica Senia, Air Force assignments chief and women in service review branch.

“We need to have SOCOM’s input as [Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James] makes the recommendation to [Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel] to open these positions,” Senia said. “We want to assess the impact to [women’s] careers [and] the opportunities that might not be afforded to females in the event SOCOM decides they’re not ready to open these positions [but] we want to make sure we don’t negatively impact females once these positions are open.”

(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDODNews)