Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

January 27, 2013

Erasing gender lines: Women deserve opportunity to serve their nation

Another day, another news cycle. Visions of flat olive fatigues and Minnie Mouse pink nail polish are dancing in my head. The story of the day, the question of the day: Should women be allowed to serve in combat situations?

It’s 2013. Is this dialogue even necessary?

I understand why some people are uneasy about putting women on the frontline. They could be shot — fatally wounded. It might be hard for some to see wives and daughters brought home in flag-draped caskets. But the loss of anyone serving our nation in combat is tragic — be it a man or a woman.

The reality is women are already giving their lives in service to their country. Women comprise around 14 percent of active military personnel, the Associated Press reported last week, and of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations, 152 have been women.

Is frontline battle a profession for all women? No. It requires strength, fortitude and skill that many people don’t possess. It calls for courage and bravery. Vigor and aptitude. It involves a level of commitment that most individuals — be they women or men — cannot comprehend.

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It’s hard to believe that in this day and age Americans continue to debate what jobs and roles are appropriate for women. When will this conversation evolve? It should not be about gender, but if an individual is right for the job.

Last week, when discussing the lifting of a ban on women serving in combat, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged the crucial role females play in our nation’s military. Yet he also emphasized that the opportunity to serve in battle positions is contingent upon an individual’s qualifications for the job.

“Every person in today’s military has made a solemn commitment to fight, and if necessary to die, for our nation’s defense,” Panetta said. “We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance.”

Panetta’s direction is clear. Women will not receive favoritism simply because of their gender, however if they are capable of doing the job they will be given an opportunity. Physical standards will not be lowered in an effort to integrate the battlefront.

Last week’s revolutionary change overturned a 1994 Pentagon rule prohibiting women from being assigned to frontline artillery, infantry, armor, special operations and pararescue jobs.

And how do the troops feel about this? Those interviewed in an AP report indicated gender is not an issue if someone has the strength and skills for the job.

“This gives us more people to work with,” Sgt. Jeremy Grayson said in the AP story. “But they would have to be able to do the physical stuff that men do. Like in some jobs in infantry you’re out there for a long time, or in artillery there is heavy work. And they have to be able to pull their own weight.”

Grayson also recalled when he realized change was taking place while serving in Baghdad in 2003. Jumping on a humvee he slapped the turret gunner on the leg and asked, “Who are you?” She leaned down and replied, “I’m Amanda.”

“And it’s from that point on I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it,” Grayson said.

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It is hard for many to accept the concept of intentionally putting women in dangerous situations. Here in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, many men are raised to protect women and treat them with the utmost respect.

They open doors for ladies, pull out their chairs at the dinner table and perform the more physical household chores.

Most women — especially those born and raised around here — appreciate these gestures. But just because some ladies are happy to have a man taking out the trash or mowing the yard, it doesn’t mean there are not women capable of pulling their own weight on the battlefield. And if they are qualified for the task, they should be given an opportunity.

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The subject of women in new roles has been a frequent topic of conversation in our newsroom for a couple of years. During that time, there have been several “first females” making news in the region.

In Buchanan County, Lucy McGough became the first female dean of the Appalachian School of Law. In Bluefield, Dr. Marsha Krotseng became the first female president of Bluefield State College. In Princeton, Elke Doom was named the first female city manager.

And, oh yeah, a couple of years ago this newspaper got its first female editor.

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How many women will be capable or qualified for frontline service remains to be seen. But it is rewarding to live in a day and age that allows them the opportunity to serve. And, who knows, some of the first may hail from West Virginia.

Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin issued the following response to Secretary Panetta’s decision to allow women in combat roles: “I am proud of all of our service members — both men and women. Women have fought bravely in combat, and should have the same opportunities as men ... I look forward to talking to Department of Defense leaders and troops as this ban is lifted. And personally, I know plenty of ladies in West Virginia who shoot straight.”

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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