There's A Big Unknown About Putting The Female Body In Combat

There was a lot of excitement about military combat jobs opening up to women when the announcement broke on Jan. 24. Politicians, military members, and even a majority of the American public support the decision.

Yet many, including some female troops, are worried about how the change will play out.

Capt. Katie Petronio served as a combat engineer officer on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and in her last deployment with a Female Engagement Team (FET) attached to the infantry, she gained insight into what it may be like. In the Marine Corps Gazette, she writes:Advertisement

"...some of these [female] Marines may feel qualified for the chance of taking on the role of 0302 [Infantry Officer]. In the end, my main concern is not whether women are capable of conducting combat operations, as we have already proven that we can hold our own in some very difficult combat situations; instead, my main concern is a question of longevity. Can women endure the physical and physiological rigors of sustained combat operations, and are we willing to accept the attrition and medical issues that go along with integration?"

The once-star college athlete, at the peak of physical condition before deploying, then goes on to write about her issues after return:

"Five years later, I am physically not the woman I once was and my views have greatly changed on the possibility of women having successful long careers while serving in the infantry. I can say from firsthand experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not just emotion, that we haven’t even begun to analyze and comprehend the gender-specific medical issues and overall physical toll continuous combat operations will have on females."

And she brings up an interesting point that has hardly been discussed. What will the long-term effects be on the female body? I served in the Marine infantry for eight years, but after losing count of the number of 10 and 15 mile road marches I've done with an 80 pound pack, I developed serious back pain that affects me to this day.

The Army and Marine infantry is a much different beast from the rest of the military. It is arguably the most grueling and difficult combat duty troops can face (outside of special operations). Although this video is of a Canadian soldier, it shows a very typical combat load and weight carried in infantry units:Advertisement

One of the biggest reasons for the policy change is that combat experience often factors into promotions. The reasoning goes that giving women the opportunity to serve in the infantry will lift a "glass ceiling" within the military, but Petronio also takes issue with this:

"Even if a female can meet the short-term physical, mental, and moral leadership requirements of an infantry officer, by the time that she is eligible to serve in a strategic leadership position, at the 20-year mark or beyond, there is a minuscule probability that she’ll be physically capable of serving at all."Advertisement

Retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jessie Jane Duff opens her piece with a comparison of the infantry to the National Football League, asking when the ban on women in the NFL will be lifted. She writes that it's not likely to happen:

"There’s simply too great a disparity in body mass and strength between NFL players and women, and the physical demands are too great."

And she echoes Capt. Petronio's concerns over long lasting physical injury:Advertisement

"Currently, women have higher rates of discharge for medical disability that prevents them from finishing their enlistment, or re-enlistment. Stress and muscular deterioration in women comes on faster and harder due to the heavy gear and physical duress in the field environment.

Muscle atrophy, hip displacement, and arthritis in knees and joints are common ailments. Spinal compression occurs from long periods of heavy combat loads."

As long as the high standards of Army and Marine infantry are kept that way, I don't personally see a huge problem in allowing women into the infantry. But a drop in standards is the fear of many infantrymen who remain skeptical. Especially when General Martin Dempsey alluded to that possibility:Advertisement

"Importantly, though, if we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high?"

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