Women in Combat: A 50-Year View

Well, how about that? Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the end of existing combat exclusion policies which for decades have prevented military women from being assigned to units performing direct combat roles. This change in policy has now been signed into being by both the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acting on behalf of all the military service chiefs.


A new day has dawned in the armed forces, but attached to the changed policies is a caveat. Services have up to three years to fully implement the policies which must be in place to select fully qualified female applicants to be trained and assigned as combat soldiers.


The services do not need three years to do this. They need sufficient time to educate the troops to changes coming while addressing the logistical needs of men and women training together. One thing is absolute: training and physical qualification standards for these men and women must be identical. All who seek combat arms status must be able to perform all assigned tasks. No exceptions.


I have some credentials to speak about these matters. I am an Army veteran who served on active duty for 30 years (1959-89). I was commissioned in the Women’s Army Corps, the only Corps of the Army in which I could serve. The other Corps which accepted women was the Army Nurse Corps. My first three assignments after officer training were to train females enlistees in the one battalion we had at Fort McClellan, to recruit women Army officers in the Pacific Northwest and then to command a company of female soldiers at Fort Belvoir, VA. In those early years, I was not authorized to command men. That change did not come along until 1975.


Actually, my entire career was one of reacting to continuous change in adjusting to how women would be utilized in the Army. The women’s movement, the human rights movement, the war in Vietnam in all of its turbulence, the end of the draft, the disestablishment of the Women’s Army Corps and much more all had impacts on what military women could do and where they could serve.


I was privileged to command at the company, battalion, brigade and major installation levels of authority. The company command was female only. All the other commands were men and women serving together. During all of these tours and when placed in staff assignments, I dealt with the changing roles of women and was proud to be able to influence some of the action.


I and many other women have been fighting the women in combat issue for decades. It has taken the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deployment there of over 250,000 women to awaken the armed forces and the public to the reality of where and how women now serve. Getting rid of dysfunctional policies that have impeded the full service of women in the military is a great step forward.


We have much more work to do in leveling the playing field, but we are on our way. The true readiness of our forces depends on moving forward to insure the proper utilization of every man and every woman who proudly serves.



Brigadier General Evelyn “Pat” Foote is a retired U.S. Army general. Her groundbreaking achievements include being the first female Deputy Inspector General of the Army, being the first female brigade commander in Europe, being the first female faculty member of the U.S. Army War College, and being the first female commander of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. She is a champion for women’s advancement in the armed forces and extinguishing sexual assault and harassment within its ranks.


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