By MOAA Senior Staff Writer Gina Harkins
When three female Marines joined their North Carolina-based infantry unit at the start of 2017, they weren’t there to serve in support roles. Instead, they made history by becoming the service’s first-ever female grunts: a rifleman, machine gunner, and mortarman.
Over the past year, female servicemembers have been considering careers previously unavailable to them in combat arms jobs like artillery officer and cannon crew member or in special operations forces such as Army Ranger, Marine critical skills operator, and Navy SEAL. New female officers and enlistees are also requesting career fields in infantry, armor, and artillery units.
These many “firsts” follow former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s 2015 announcement that the decades-old ban prohibiting women from serving in combat jobs would be lifted. Since then, women have been stepping up to see if they have what it takes to join formerly all-male fields.
Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Virginia Brodie is one of the Corps’ first female artillery officers. She now serves with 1st Battalion, 11th Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“It is a demanding job, but once the howitzer fires, all the hard work is worth it,” Brodie says. “There is simply nothing like it.”
Despite the formalities, women long have served in combat — with some paying the ultimate sacrifice on the front lines or earning valor awards for battlefield heroism.
“I’m proud to see that we have finally been officially allowed to be in those frontline jobs, to include joint terminal attack controllers and infantrymen, where we can work side-by-side with the men,” says Air Force Maj. Jennifer Cannon, a weapon systems officer who was part of the first-ever combat mission to be carried out entirely by female airmen, in Afghanistan in 2011.
“I’ve never thought that women’s abilities were any different than men’s, so now that we’re all allowed to work in those combat roles, young women can now aspire to train for those careers,” Cannon says.
Here’s a look at where each of the services stands when it comes to full gender integration.
When the defense secretary lifted the ban on female servicemembers serving in combat roles, “99 percent of Air Force positions were open to women prior to the decision,” says Zachary Anderson, an Air Force spokesperson at the Pentagon.
All jobs now are open to female airmen, he says, including special tactics officer, combat rescue officer, combat controller, Tactical Air Control Party airman, pararescueman, and special operations weather enlisted airman. So far, five women have passed the Physical Aptitude Stamina Test needed to serve in those fields, but none have completed training to move into any of the jobs.
Cannon says she’s proud of serving with the first all-female Air Force team to lead a combat mission in 2011 — but not just because they were all women.
“More than it being an all-female flight, from the planning stage to execution, we were able to save several American lives that day,” she says. “After the mission, we all went to the Bagram [air base] hospital, where several of the wounded soldiers were airlifted from the fight. We spoke to one who remembered us dropping weapons to stop the enemy fire, and how that impacted the fight on the ground, and the morale of the soldiers.
“Hearing stories like that firsthand motivates me to keep doing the job and to be the best I can be in order to protect our coalition forces.”
As other female servicemembers consider serving in roles typically dominated by men, Cannon says they never should “let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.” Women have different strengths than men, she says, and they should use those strengths to their advantage.
“There are some people out there who will try to divert you from your goals, but keep pushing,” she says. “There’s no reason you can’t do a job if you work and study hard enough.”
In addition to flying countless combat missions, Cannon also has a family. She’s the mother of two boys and has a daughter on the way. She hopes other female airmen see it’s possible to reach milestones in their career while also having a family.
As the biggest service, the Army has the highest number of women attempting to move into combat roles.
In December 2016, 13 female officers completed the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Benning, Ga. All of the women had met the requirements of a combat leader, according to Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley, head of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, in a press conference before their graduation.
Allowing women to serve in combat roles “broadened the pool from which we draw to promote to platoon leaders in the armor branch, because we’ve extended the opportunity to be armor leaders to women in the Army,” Wesley said.
As of late last year, 178 women who were heading to boot camp had contracts to join infantry or armor career fields, says Lt. Col. Randy Taylor, an Army spokesperson. For female cadets commissioning through ROTC or the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 2016 and 2017, he says, 27 have branched infantry and 31 armor.
A female soldier passed the Army’s Ranger Assessment and Selection Program 2 — also known as RASP — in December. She is scheduled to report to the 75th Ranger Regiment in the spring of 2017, said Lt. Col. Robert Bockholt, a spokesperson for Army Special Operations Command.
Bockholt declined to provide her rank or field, citing security concerns.
“The identity, career fields, and background of our Rangers are not provided in accordance with our current security policy,” Bockholt told Army Times.
Three women made history in 2015 when they completed the grueling Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga. One of them, Capt. Kristen Griest, now is an infantry officer. She made a branch transfer after she completed the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course. Twenty-three more female officers are projected to attend Ranger School in 2017, Taylor says.
Last summer, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dan Dailey sent a memo encouraging more female soldiers to consider combat-arms jobs. Since then, Taylor says, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of enlisted soldiers being assessed for combat-arms positions.
“As our female soldiers become more informed about all the career opportunities available in combat occupations, we expect the numbers will continue to rise,” Taylor says.
The Army recently unveiled a new fitness test for all soldiers who want to move into more physically demanding jobs. Scoring on those tests is gender-neutral, so all male and female soldiers who want to move into those jobs must meet the same requirements.
Army Reserve Maj. Lisa Jaster, who was one of the first women to complete Ranger School, has urged Army leaders to keep high fitness requirements for any soldier who wants to serve in combat units.
“Elite training courses … ensure that only individuals with extremely high levels of mental and physical prowess can serve in these niche capacities,” she wrote in a 2015 Washington Post opinion piece. “That should not change.”
Like the Air Force, almost all Navy jobs were open to women before Carter’s decision to lift any remaining bans. Women now are free to train to become corpsmen, who treat Marines on the battlefield, or Navy SEALs, though none has completed the courses as of press time.
One area in which the Navy has made strides in recent years is in its submarine community. Female officers now make up 3 percent of that once all-male force, and enlisted women make up about 1 percent.
“We now have 18 submarine crews integrated with female officers,” says Navy spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen. “By 2021, we will have all 14 Ohio-class crews integrated with female enlisted personnel, and that same year, the first Block IV Virginia-class [subs] will be ready to receive enlisted women.”
Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus changed several policies in recent years to make the sea services more attractive to female recruits. He pushed to expand the Navy and Marine Corps Career Intermission Program, which allows servicemembers to take three years off at certain points in their careers to do things like attend school or start a family.
He also pushed to have maternity leave extended and started programs that allowed sailors and Marines to serve with civilian companies midcareer.
Uniforms and job titles also were made gender-neutral under Mabus’ leadership.
Allowing women to serve in new roles is crucial to the Navy’s success, Christensen says.
"Leaders generate success and achieve unparalleled performance when they tap into the energy and capability of an actively inclusive team,” he says. “It’s important that we not think, act, and look the same. The strength of our service is our diversity.”
No female officers have completed the Infantry Officer Course yet, but three female enlisted Marines headed to the infantry this year. They now are assigned to 1st Battalion, 8th Marines in Camp Lejeune, N.C. To provide these Marines with female leaders in their units, the Marine Corps assigned three women — two officers and one staff NCO — to their battalion.
“These Marines are serving in billets to which they were assigned according to their appropriate [military occupational specialty],” says Capt. Philip Kulczewski, a Marine Corps spokesperson at the Pentagon. “This process ensures the Marine Corps will adhere to its standards and will continue its emphasis on combat readiness.”
As of press time, the Marine Corps has not publicly identified the female infantry Marines. All three are corporals or below, Kulczewski says. One previously was an ammunition technician, one a supply administration and operations clerk, and one a maintenance management specialist.
Nine women were expected to graduate boot camp in early 2017; if successful they would go on to train to join the infantry. More than 400 female Marines volunteered to complete infantry training before all jobs opened to women as part of the Marine Corps’ research. About 35 percent of those women completed the training.
When Brodie became one of the Marine Corps’ first female artillery officers last year, she had finished No. 1 in her 137-person class, making her the distinguished honor graduate. Brodie recommends that women taking on new roles find a good mentor and focus on their job.
“Act normal,” she says. “If you view yourself as different or special, others will treat you differently.”
Serving in a newly opened position can be intimidating, she says, but she is determined not to let it affect the mission.
“Focus your energy and time on doing your job and contributing to the unit,” Brodie says, “because external pressures can easily take away from that, and the Marines you work with will suffer the consequences.”
The Marine Corps was the only service to request a partial exemption from the decision to open all jobs to women, including those in the infantry. The request — made by then-Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, who now serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs — was based on data from a months-long study that showed mixed-gender combat teams were outperformed by their all-male counterparts. Data collected from the experiment showed women in the study were slower and more likely to become injured and fired their weapons with less accuracy.
Despite the findings, Carter decided against keeping some jobs in the Marine Corps closed to women.
“We are a joint force,” he said in December 2015 when announcing the policy change, “and I have decided to make a decision which applies to the entire force.”
Like the Army, the Marine Corps has new gender-neutral MOS physical fitness tests for all men and women training to join combat-arms positions. All qualified Marines now have the same opportunity to volunteer to serve in any MOS or unit, Kulczewski says.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller has talked about female servicemembers’ sacrifices in combat zones. During a December 2016 event in Washington, D.C., he cited Marine Corps Maj. Megan McClung, a public affairs officer killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006.
“I’m coming up on the 10th anniversary [of] when Megan McClung was killed in Ramadi, and I sent her [there],” he said. “So … I don’t need a class on women in combat.”