Lifting ban on women in combat seems to be positive move, but questions linger

Dawn Whitcomb, adjutant at the Illinois Veterans Home, stands in the Gulf War section of the All Wars Museum at the home Tuesday. Whitcomb, talking about the recent Pentagon ruling that will allow women in combat, says, Its about time. (H-W Photo/Micha
Posted: Jan. 30, 2013 8:55 am Updated: Feb. 13, 2013 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Dawn Whitcomb, the adjutant at the Illinois Veterans Home, applauded last week's announcement from the Pentagon that lifted the ban on women in front-line combat roles.

"It's about time," Whitcomb said. "If a woman can do the job, they should be allowed."

Whitcomb, a Quincy resident, was a corpsman -- or medical specialist -- for six years, serving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. She was a member of the armed services at the time of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, but she was never deployed.

Whitcomb said permitting women in combat also would open the door for more and quicker promotions. She said their relatively limited roles in today's armed forces can diminish career advancement.

Susan Asher, one of the owners of Thyme-out Tea Parties in Quincy, was an engineer in the Air Force for 23 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in August 2001 -- six weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. She also considered the news positive, but wants to hold off on a final judgment.

"I would like to see what all of the implications are," Asher said. "For example, will (women) have a choice about being in combat? Will it be volunteer?"

Among the other questions that came from conversations with the two local veterans was whether women would eventually be eligible to be drafted, if a draft was ever reinstated.

"The Devil's always in the details," Asher said.

The new policy is expected to be in place by Jan. 1, 2016.

The Pentagon's announcement moved the armed forces another step toward gender equality and followed women's increased presence on the battlefield during the last 11 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Over more than a decade of war, (women) have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in published reports. "(Women and men both) serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality."

Government figures indicate that 152 women in uniform had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 300,000 women have been deployed in the past decade-plus.

President Barack Obama strongly supports the new policy.

"Every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love," Obama told Reuters News Service, calling the decision a "historic step."

Wire reports indicate Panetta's goal "is to open everything" to women. Service chiefs will have to ask for exceptions if they want to keep some positions closed, and any exception would have to be approved by the defense secretary.

"There are no guarantees of success," Panetta told reporters. "Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance."

Both Whitcomb and Asher agreed that was the most important caveat surrounding the Pentagon announcement. Having an opportunity that was not there previously will extremely important to current and future female soldiers.

Asher said women have been involved in combat missions for the Air Force for some time. That segment of the armed services may have realized gender equity could be a good thing before other branches did.

Asher, whose husband, Terry, also retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, said there was an old Air Force axiom about a plane never knowing "what sex" was flying them.

Whitcomb still appreciates what she took away from her time in uniform.

"I loved it," she said. "It was a great opportunity, it made a difference in my life. I learned to be independent, learned to be on my own and learned leadership qualities."

The camaraderie was one of those intangibles that those outside the armed services might have difficulty fully understanding.

"Male or female, we were there to protect one another," she said.

That same "male or female" concept now is designed to resonate through all levels of the U.S. military.