U.S. Army Cpl. Kristine Tejada from 1st Platoon, Task Force 2-82 Field Artillery Regiment, provides security on Sept. 24, 2011, at the ancient Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey signed an order on Jan. 24 to lift a ban on women serving in combat.
The Pentagon’s recent lift of a ban on women in combat roles is leaving some cadets across the country with more questions than answers.
“I think many service members — myself included — will continue questioning the reasons behind the decision,” said Megan Conger, a sophomore at the University of Michigan and a member of the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. “But you can expect military culture to be changed forever.”
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. military will begin to expand frontline combat positions to women. The lift, overturning a 1994 law that banned women in small ground combat missions, is expected to open 230,000 jobs to female soldiers.
While some were surprised by the timing of the Pentagon’s announcement, others suggest the ban’s repeal is par for the course.
“For the past two decades, the U.S. military has whittled down exclusions in its admissions,” said Jill Hasday, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. “Removing the ban of women in combat was just the next step.”
As the military begins to sketch out its plan for integrating women into frontline positions, with some roles opening up as early as this year, military academies throughout the nation are preparing their students for the policy change.
“It’s our responsibility to teach the next wave of military leaders the new rules of contact,” said Col. Stewart D. MacInnis, director of communications and marketing at the Virginia Military Institute, a public military college based in Lexington, Va.
MacInnis said VMI will do just as they did in 2011 when the Obama administration repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — bring cadets into workshops, giving them an inside look at the changes in protocol.
“Our curriculum itself won’t really change because of the announcement,” MacInnis said, adding that most frontline training is given in speciality schools after military college. “But we’ll train our students on the new expectations and outline procedures to help smooth the transition.”
Proponents of the women serving in combat positions have argued that the Pentagon’s previous ban prevented women from reaching the same high-level careers as male soldiers, since many promotions in the military are based on combat experience.
“It’s hard to predict what this policy means for military academies,” said Hasday, who has written extensively on the legality of the Pentagon’s previous proscription of women in combat. “But now that women can serve as multi-star generals, we might see more women attracted to attending military colleges.”
Hasday added that the increase in career opportunities for women in the military could also improve female retention rates in military colleges and programs, which historically have had difficulty keeping women enrolled.
“The numbers are slowly increasing, but we do struggle with attracting women to our programs,” MacInnis said. Of the 509 new students who enrolled at VMI in August 2012, 46 were women.
“Female cadets currently make up less than 10% of our student body,” MacInnis said. Up until 1997, VMI had its own policy forbidding women, which stayed intact until a 1996 Supreme Court decision required the school to accept female students.
“Realistically, we assume we’re not going to get that number to 50% — even the federal academies aren’t near that,” MacInnis added. “But we hope the changes the Pentagon put in place will increase interest for women, and keep them in our schools.”
Sara Johnson, a sophomore in University of Michigan’s ROTC program, said that though her own career plans might not change because of policy change, she hopes that the modification will encourage more women to consider “going army.”
“I’ve never felt less significant in my ROTC program because I’m a woman,” Johnson said. “But if this means more women are encouraged to join us, then I’m excited.”
Though some ROTC policies do highlight gender differences, such as slower run times for women in weekly physical training sessions, Johnson said she hasn’t felt out of place as a female cadet.
“There are still some rules on the books that are tailored towards men,” Johnson said, pointing to a procedure that requires cadets to shave facial hair before formals. “But I’ve really found a family here, with both men and women.”
“Every cadet is treated with the same respect,” added Conger, who plans to become an officer in the Army Nurse Corps. “The fact that many successful female cadets and instructors pass through the building every day reminds me that women are completely capable.”
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