Women Closer to Front Lines, Medical Positions Affected

by U.S. Medicine

June 7, 2012

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — Women already are fulfilling critical roles in the U.S. military, and new changes to DoD rules will allow women to officially serve even closer to the front lines in a variety of occupations, including medical positions.  

“Women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission. Through their courage, sacrifice, patriotism and great skill, women have proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles on and off the battlefield,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said. “We will continue to open as many positions as possible to women so that anyone qualified to serve can have the opportunity to do so.”

More than 14,000 new positions were opened to women in the U.S. military as a result of those policy changes, which take into account that battlefields today are not as clearly defined as they might have been during past conflicts.

U.S. Army Deputy Surgeon General Maj. Gen. Richard Stone pinned Sgt. Whitney Longwell, currently deployed with 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, with the combat medical badge April 18. Longwell is currently deployed with 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. Photo by Capt. Addie Randolph.

For example, DoD will no longer restrict women from positions required to be co-located with ground-combat units. In a statement, military officials explained that “because the modern-day battlefield is nonlinear and fluid, with no clearly defined front line or safer rear area, combat-support operations are dispersed throughout the battlespace.

Removal of the co-location exclusion will result in 13,139 Army positions being opened to women, in specialties such as tank mechanic and field artillery radar operator.”

While women will continue to be barred from serving as infantry, armor and special operations forces, the most dangerous combat jobs, they will be allowed to perform their current occupations closer to battlefields — at the battalion level instead of the brigade level.

“The Army, Marines and Navy have been granted exceptions to policy to allow select positions at the battalion level in specialties already open to women, opening 1,186 additional positions. These exceptions to policy will help the services assess the suitability and relevance of the direct ground combat unit assignment prohibition, and inform future policy decisions,” DoD officials explained in a statement.

Medical Positions

Hank Minitrez, chief of public affairs for the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, told U.S. Medicine that all Army medical Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) traditionally have been open to both women and men. In terms of assignment or co-location with direct combat units, however, there were specific positions in units previously closed to women who held the rank of MOS 68W or Health Care Sergeant/Health Care Platoon sergeant (Staff Sgt. and Sgt. 1st. Class, respectively).

Noting that the changes would go into effect in mid-May and undergo a six-month assessment period, Minitrez said in a statement, “They’ll perform their job as they have already been trained. The only difference is at what unit level they’ll be serving, down to battalion level at direct combat units, whereas before it was no lower than brigade level.”

Women Closer to Front Lines, Medical Positions Affected

The DoD’s report also listed Army officer positions newly opened to women at the battalion level, including field surgeon or medical-platoon leader, physician’s assistant and medical-operations officer.

In the past, women served in positions, such as medics, that were “attached” to battalions, but they could not be formerly assigned to a battalion.

For the Navy, the changes “will open 60 medical officer, chaplain, chief hospital corpsman and hospital corpsman first class positions for the assignment of women in Marine Corps ground-combat element battalions. The 60 new Navy positions open to the assignment of women include 18 medical-officer positions, 19 chaplain-officer positions, and 23 chief and petty officer first-class hospital corpsman positions,” according to a written statement.

Opening Positions to Women

While changes in policy were applauded by some, other advocates for women in the military argue that it does not go far enough.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-CA, introduced legislation last year in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to allow qualified female soldiers to fight in combat. At the time the bill was introduced, she said her legislation recognized contributions women already were making on the battlefield. Sanchez noted then that, as of April 1, 2011, 137 female members of the armed forces already had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and, of the women killed, over 60 were killed in combat.

According to more recent statistics, nearly 300,000 women have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 144 of them have died in the conflicts.

“I strongly encourage the Pentagon to continue taking an even closer look at the combat role our servicewomen in Afghanistan and around the world are already filling successfully,” she said last month in a statement. “As the highest ranking woman on the House Armed Services Committee, I believe these servicewomen deserve our country’s recognition for the combat service they already provide. I urge the Pentagon to repeal its direct combat unit assignment prohibition, and I will continue to fight for this repeal in Congress.”

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), called the changes a “step in the right direction,” but lamented that women still cannot serve in combat positions.

“This is extremely disappointing.” Bhagwati said in a written statement. “To continue such a ban is to ignore the talents and leadership that women bring to the military, and it further penalizes service women by denying them the opportunity for future promotions and assignments that are primarily given to personnel from combat arms specialties,” a phenomenon that SWAN calls the “Brass Ceiling.”

Report to Congress on the Review of Laws, Policies and Regulations Restricting the Service of Female Members in the U.S. Armed Forces

Department Opens More Military Positions to Women

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