The U.S. Army and Marines traditionally don't allow women to serve in front-line combat roles.
But in wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no front lines. The recent death of Spc. Sarina Butcher, 19, of Checotah, should serve as a reminder that traditional concepts of women in combat are no more, said female soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the state's first
Butcher, 19, is the first female member of the Oklahoma National Guard to die in war. She and another soldier, Sgt. Christopher Gailey, 26, of Ochelata, died Nov. 1 after their vehicle was hit with a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon led the state's Air National Guard before retiring and now serves as Gov. Mary Fallin's secretary of veterans affairs. Aragon said the Air Force and Navy have women serving as combat pilots and on Navy ships. But the other two branches of the military have been slower to integrate women into front-line roles.
“The Army and the Marine Corps are the two that say they don't want women on the front lines,” Aragon said. “And yet, there is no front line anymore. We must have women out in the front because men can't search women. Women are there. They just aren't receiving the same credit as men for being there.”
Aragon recently served on the White House Commission on Military Leadership Diversity, which looked at why women and minorities are underrepresented in senior military leadership roles.
One of the group's recommendations was ending Army and Marine policies that define certain front-line combat roles where women are not supposed to serve.
Army 1st Lt. Kerri Keck is serving in Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. She trained Female Engagement Teams, which search and question Afghan women, a task male soldiers aren't allowed to do because of cultural concerns.
Keck said they also obtain intelligence that their male counterparts sometimes can't because civilians often feel more comfortable talking to a female soldier.
“The issue that females should not be in combat roles is irrelevant at this point because females have been on the front lines proudly putting their lives on the line for their country for at least a decade now,” Keck said.
Keck said women drive trucks along routes littered with roadside bombs and protect military outposts that are often attacked by insurgents.
The Oklahoma National Guard has 950 female members, and 197 of them are among the more than 3,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan, military officials said.
Spc. Alyssa Rainville, of Ponca City, serves on the personal security detail of Col. Joel Ward, the commander of the 45th in Afghanistan. Rainville said she is the only female in her platoon.
“I don't feel that the fact that I am a female has hindered what I do here in Afghanistan,” Rainville said. “If anything it has given my team an advantage.”
Rainville said she knows some think of women only acting as nurses and in other support roles for the military.
“That's not what it's like anymore,” Rainville said. “We get shot at and hit IEDs and actually see the combat alongside our male counterparts.”
Critics worry about lowering physical standards and about the effect on morale and possible sexual tension in combat situations.
Aragon said physical standards should be the same for men and women, depending on the jobs they are doing within the military. She said that also means women should be allowed to serve in special forces, such as the Army Rangers and Navy SEALS, if they can meet the demanding training requirements and standards that weed out even most men who try out.
“I made a point to be able to do the same amount of push-ups and being able to run as far and as fast as my male counterparts,” Aragon said. “When we set that lower standard, we are saying we don't think women can really do this.”
Aragon said there is no research showing that adding women to combat infantry units would harm morale. She said men and women will just have to keep their hands to themselves, as they would be expected to do in any other situation.
Part of the reluctance to put women in more combat roles comes from a chivalrous concept of protecting women, Aragon said. She has a daughter and son in the military. She said she has been asked how she would feel if her daughter were killed or kidnapped by insurgents.
“I just don't know that I'd feel any different than I would about my son being abducted or killed,” Aragon said. “I'd be devastated either way. It shouldn't have anything to do with gender.”
Keck said those who think women need to be protected should consider that she and her fellow female soldiers are already protecting millions of Americans every day.
“At this point, women have become an indispensable part of the U.S. military and deserve the same respect and honor reserved for men in our fighting forces,” Keck said.