Gail Collins: Women already fighting, dying for country

01/26/2013 12:00 AM

01/25/2013 6:21 PM

Women in the military will get to serve in combat. It’s not exactly the vision of the future the founding mothers embraced at Seneca Falls but still – about time.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the ban on women serving in combat be lifted. The transformation won’t happen immediately, and it might not be universal. But it’s still a groundbreaking change, and except for a broadside from the Concerned Women for America (“our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness”), the reception has seemed overwhelmingly positive.

The fear of putting women in the trenches has been dispelled on two fronts. One, of course, is the change in the way the American public thinks about women. The other is the shortage of trenches in modern warfare, when an officer on the front lines is not necessarily in a more dangerous position than a service worker. In Iraq, Shoshana Johnson, a cook, was shot in both ankles, taken captive and held for 22 days after her unit was separated from a convoy crossing the desert. Lori Piestewa, a Native American and, like Johnson, a single mother, was a driver in the same convoy full of clerks and maintenance workers. She was skillfully steering her Humvee through mortar fire when a truck immediately ahead of her jackknifed and her front wheel was hit by rocket fire. She was fatally injured in the ensuing crash.

Women now make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military. Their service made the switch to an all-volunteer Army possible. They’ve taken their posts with such seamless calm that the country barely took note. The specter that opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment warned against – our sisters and mothers dying under fire in foreign lands – has happened over and over and over. More than 130 women have died and more than 800 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. House includes a female double amputee in the person of the newly elected Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former military pilot who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

Today women are on armed patrols and in fighter planes. But they can’t hold some of about 200,000 positions officially termed “combat” that mean more pay and often provide the steppingstone for promotions. Cynics might wonder if some of the military brass fear that upward mobility more than the potential bloodshed.

“We only have one four-star general who’s a woman,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who cheered Panetta’s decision. Only recently, Gillibrand recalled, she and her allies declared victory when they merely got language in the defense authorization bill requiring the Defense Department to study the question of women in combat.

We’ve come a long, heroic, sometimes tragic way. Now, the biggest concern for women in the military is not assault from the enemy as much as the danger of sexual assault from fellow members of the service. Because the crime is so underreported, it’s impossible to say how many female service members suffer sexual assault, but 3,192 were reported in 2011.

Allowing women who currently serve in combat conditions to get the benefits of combat positions won’t make that threat worse. But it might make things better, for surely the more women there are in positions of leadership in the military, the more attention will be paid.

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