Military women still fighting cultural barriers

By Gabrielle Rosas

Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was sitting in the back of a military convoy in Iraq March 20, 2005, when insurgents ambushed the vehicle as it traveled into Baghdad. Hester and her comrades braved enemy fire to reach trenches along the road where they fought back with grenades. Hester killed three insurgents and saved “countless lives,” according to her award citation. For her bravery in combat, she received the Silver Star in June 2005. It was the first time a woman had received the highest medal for valor since World War II.

Presidential GOP candidate Rick Santorum must have forgotten about this story when he recently stated that “emotions might get in the way” if women are allowed to serve on the front lines of combat. Santorum seems to forget about much of the evidence invariably piling up against him and his half-baked arguments. But I digress.

Santorum is either greatly misinformed or just refuses to acknowledge the growing influence women have gained in the military during the last 40 years. According to a Pew Research Center study, women in enlisted and commissioned ranks increased 12 percent since the draft ended in the 1970s. As much as Santorum opposes the idea of women in combat, they clearly aren’t going anywhere.

As a woman, Santorum’s statements irk me. Women have proven time and again that they perform military duties at or beyond the level of their male counterparts. They have become an integral part of military operations. In fact, a 2008 study by the Strategic Studies Institute found that “the nature of the current battlefield makes it impossible to apply strictly the existing rules for excluding women from combat” without seriously compromising combat missions. Even Adm. Eric T. Olson, the retired top commander of U.S. special operations and a Navy SEAL, said he wants to see more female SEALs in combat roles.

Thankfully, Santorum stands at a podium and spouts nonsense, nothing more. Women will keep moving up the ranks with or without his approval. The Pentagon announced Feb. 9 that it would make more ground-combat positions available to women by opening up 14,000 support jobs. Women are still not allowed to serve directly in combat roles under the changes. Regardless, it is a step forward.

Ripping on Santorum is one of my favorite pastimes but the poor, bumbling fool did have an interesting argument that I simply can’t turn up my nose at.

Culturally and socially, women are still not equal to men in the United States. Women are still not as successful in the workplace, they are still fighting for equal pay and they still face sexual objectification. In other words, women still have a long way to go.

Unfortunately, this cultural inequality spills over into the workplace, even when the workplace happens to be a battlefield.

Elaine Donnelly, who served on the 1992 presidential commission on the assignment of women in the armed forces, also saw Santorum’s side of the argument. She told ABC News that sometimes a woman is not “able to meet the physical requirements, and it doesn’t matter how brave or courageous she is.” I have to say, sad as it is, I can see this happening in certain situations. But ultimately, women deserve and are perfectly capable of serving in ground-combat positions with men.

Santorum shot himself in the foot once again when he backpedaled from his earlier comment and blamed the emotional capacity of men: “It’s just simply the emotions of men dealing with women in combat and not focusing on potentially on the mission instead of … in protecting a natural instinct to protect someone who’s a female.”

Rick, I’ve got this nagging feeling that both men and women would be more concerned about coming home in one piece than worrying about cultural niceties.

Also, it might help to articulate your thoughts more eloquently.