It was a polling station—an Afghan polling station, deep in the Peche River Valley.
A Marine convoy behind them started taking heavy machine gun fire.
A round punched straight through the engine block of the lead vehicle, and the convoy screeched to a halt as fire rained down.
Their air cover was gone—the helicopter gunships were flying on empty and had to return to Camp Blessing.
A mile up the road, the soldiers in the unit of Ian Salvatore, ‘98, responded the way months of training had taught them to.
They stopped the Humvees, loaded the .50-caliber machine guns and prepared to evacuate the trapped Marines.
They were alert and focused, readying themselves for the fight.
“We all knew there was a high probability we’d be rolling back into the firefight,” Salvatore said. “It all took place in a matter of seconds that seemed to drag on for hours.”
But, of course, this wasn’t combat because this was a support unit. They weren’t supposed to see combat.
And so, when those soldiers clicked new magazines into their weapons, adjusted their body armor and mentally readied themselves for the fight, nearly a quarter were women.
Before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would have been highly unusual for women to even come near a firefight like this.
But on the new front lines of the War on Terror, the very idea of the front line has steadily eroded.
And with it the old attitudes on women in combat have come crashing down.
So it wasn’t surprising when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced this month that all combat positions in every branch of the United States military are now open to women.
Even elite units, such as the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, will be open to female applicants unless the specific unit applies for, and is granted, an exception.
Since 1978 women have been able to serve in all non-combat positions, including piloting, driving convoys and serving on U.S. Navy ships.
But women had been banned from all combat infantry units—those units on the ground who were intended to see actual fighting.
One of those women, Molly Tash, ‘10, a Navy medic, agrees emphatically with the new policy.
“Some females are just as qualified, capable and have as much heart as any male soldier,” Tash said.
“And the females that do volunteer do so for a reason. The majority are intelligent, tough and in great physical condition and know that they will make it through the training required to get them in that spot.
“They should look not at who should be in combat by male versus female, but individual vs. individual.”
Salvatore, an Air Force captain on loan to the Army who ran convoys along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2008 and 2009, agrees.
“Women already serve in the military and they serve in combat,” Salvatore said. “The military is used to it, and to those in the military, it’s a non-issue.
There are no more front lines in war, and a majority of military members are in combat regardless of their assigned specialty.”
The change will also allow women to rise higher in the ranks of the Army and Marine Corps, where combat experience is often crucial to obtaining promotions.
“The bottom line is that there will never be a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who is a woman until this change is made,” Aaron Harris, ‘04, said.
Harris served with the Army from 2008-12 after being a member of ROTC at George Washington University.
“If we want the best and brightest women to join the military and stay in for a career, then women need to be given the same upper limit of success as men,” Harris said.
Harris believes that the change is necessary, but needs to be implemented carefully over time.
“It is a bit naive to pretend that all the young men who currently serve in all-male combat units are ready to make this change immediately,” Harris said.
“I believe that the inclusion of a handful of women in my platoon would have been very distracting for my soldiers.”
But he said that these issues can be overcome, comparing the integration of women to the desegregation of the military after World War II.
One of the main complaints about the new policy is that standards might be lowered to allow women entry to top-tier units.
This is the main concern of retired Colonel Alex Sotomayor.
“A standard main gun tank round is 40 inches long and weighs 46 pounds,” Sotomayor said. “An infantry squad member carries a load on his back that weighs an average of 80-100 pounds.”
Sotomayor served in the Army Reserve for 30 years and was deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom with the 75th Infantry Division working in logistics.
“I have no doubt that many women currently can handle these physical challenges,” Sotomayor said. “But are they the exception rather than the rule?”
Sotomayor said his greatest concern is that physical standards will be lowered to accommodate female recruits.
Tash, who joined the Navy in 2012 and is stationed at the Naval Operational Support Center in Sacramento, disagrees.
She maintains that qualifications will not be reduced and should not be.
“It’s just funny to me that at boot camp we went to the shooting range, and while I practiced and qualified, there were five guys that didn’t have to shoot because they were scared—and that is who our society trusts most to send overseas to defend our country,” Tash said.
And the Department of Defense would seem to agree with her, according to a New York Times article (“Pentagon is set to lift combat ban for women,” Jan. 24) which reported that “officials said repeatedly that they would not lower the physical standards for women in rigorous combat jobs like the infantry.”
“Why should someone be denied the opportunity to go through infantry training, SEAL training or Ranger school?” Salvatore said.
“It’s easy to say that someone isn’t capable of doing a specific job, but if they’re denied the opportunity to go through qualification training, how do you know they’re not capable of succeeding?”
Salvatore’s unit never had to go back into the valley to rescue the convoy—American mortars located and destroyed the Taliban post.
But Salvatore said he would have been confident putting his life in his troops’ hands, male or female.
“They are willing to die to keep you alive, and you are willing to die to keep them alive,” Salvatore said.
“The unit is a family, and the person next to you, regardless of gender, is the most important person in the world.”