Lost in the recent announcement that women will be allowed in combat roles within the military for the first time is the reality that many women already have been in those positions as the front lines of war have blurred.
Oklahoma women who have served in those positions said the Pentagon's announcement is merely catching up to our culture and the circumstances of modern warfare.
A group of women from the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade served with front line units when the brigade deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
These female engagement teams accompanied patrols and other combat units, helping question and search Afghan women who were forbidden culturally from interacting with male soldiers.
Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs and the first female commander of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, said these teams illustrate that there is a need for women in combat units.
“The truth is, this nation needs the finest fighting force it can produce,” Aragon said. “You find who can do the mission that you have, and you utilize them.”
Two of the women involved in those teams were Capt. Shawna Woodard, of Norman, and Capt. Kristin Tschetter, of Yukon.
They said Afghan women often were more willing to talk about insurgent activity than men, an advantage that would have been lost if the female engagement teams hadn't been there.
Tschetter was connected to a unit that searched for specific insurgents.
“Our job was to engage the females as to who that target was and where they might be,” Tschetter said. “A lot of times, the information we got from the females was the best information to see where that person went.”
Allowing women to serve directly with those combat units is a logical next step, but there are details to work out, Aragon said.
Woodard, Tschetter and Aragon all agree that the physical requirements for female soldiers in combat units must be the same as for their male counterparts.
That may mean fewer numbers of women qualify for those positions, but it is the only way to make sure they are as prepared and qualified as they need to be, Aragon said.
It is an issue of fairness, both in allowing women to perform jobs they want to do and in closing a gap in female leadership at the highest levels, said Aragon, who recently served on a national committee that looked at why there aren't more women in top leadership positions in the military.
“If you don't have the right background and experience, you don't go to the next level in military command leadership,” Aragon said.
The change also will allow women to get credit for the danger they already face in war zones, where the distinction between combat and support units has blurred, Woodard said.
“There really is no front line anymore,” Woodard said.
“You can't see the enemy. I think that was on everybody's mind anytime you left your base. We encountered quite a few IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the road.”
Aragon is proof that a woman can make general, but there are a limited number of leadership positions available, and many of them require leading combat troops.
Those positions require someone with combat experience.
Tschetter, an intelligence officer, said the change will help women who aren't necessarily looking for direct combat.
“For my job, I have a limited amount of units I can sit on,” Tschetter said. “I can't be an intelligence officer for an infantry battalion. With this change, I can do that job at that echelon. It opens up all kinds of promotional paths.”
The change won't be easy, Aragon said. Many members of the military still are wary of allowing women into combat roles, and integrating them into those positions will be a long process.
Tschetter said the military has faced such challenges before.
“Really it's just the military catching up to our culture and how far it has come,” Tschetter said. “Change is going to be hard like anything else. It may be messy at first. But our military has evolved and will evolve through this.”