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Opening combat to women presents problems, veterans say

| Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
“I think it’s going to be a logistical nightmare,” says Cecilia Evans, 34, of Library of the Pentagon's decision to allow women in combat. Evans, who served as a Marine in North Carolina and Iraq from November 2004 to November 2011, now works at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Cecilia Evans, 34, of Library, who served as a Marine in North Carolina and Iraq from November 2004 to November 2011, poses for a portrait at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland where she now works on Thursday, January 24, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Women should be warriors if they want to be, but the Defense Department's decision to allow them in combat roles causes problems even as it marks a step in equal rights, veterans said on Thursday.

“I think it's going to be a logistical nightmare,” said Cecilia Evans, 34, of Library, a former Marine Corps corporal who served seven years, including a tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom. “There's the question of cohabitation, showering, bathrooms.”

And there would be “the sexual tension thing,” she said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a landmark change in policy on Thursday that could open as many as 230,000 combat positions — many in Army and Marine infantry units and potentially in elite commando jobs — to women.

“We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance,” Panetta said.

The change, recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from assignment to smaller ground combat units. Opening up combat roles to women “will strengthen our military, enhance our readiness and be another step toward fulfilling our nation's founding ideals of fairness and equality,” said President Obama.

Yet, Evans and others said a ”very valid concern” would be how male soldiers would react to women on the battlefield.

“Most would go out of their way to protect the female. It's ingrained in our culture. They would act before thinking,” said Evans, a member of Steel City Vets, a group that provides support and guidance to post 9/11-era veterans within Western Pennsylvania.

Women have been in combat for a long time, though the military might not acknowledge it, said retired Army Lt. Col. Lois G. Shirley.

“They all carry weapons; they are all deployed,” said Shirley, 72, of West Mifflin. “You can't serve on a tank, but they are drivers of trucks that serve the tanks.” Shirley spent 22 years in the Army as a supply officer, including a stint in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and supports the policy change.

“If they want to do it, let them do it,” she said.

Garland Richie, 46, of McKeesport, served with female soldiers in Iraq during his 16 years in the Army and six in the Air Force.

“They were police officers from Seattle,” he said. “They were tough, disciplined and focused.”

Fraternization was the one drawback, he said: “It's human nature, especially in an environment as isolated and lonely as hostile environments are.”

Combat service by women stretches back centuries. The Union and Confederate armies each forbade their enlistment, but some women disguised themselves as men and took up arms.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his organization would poll its 150,000 members in coming days on the Defense Department's historic change.

Although women were “officially excluded from combat roles, they have been serving bravely in combat throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” he said. “There are no clear front lines in these conflicts. Almost 300,000 women have served, and over 150 have lost their lives since 2001.”

Army veteran Casey Patterson, 35, of Dormont was in one of the first co-ed basic training camps at Fort Jackson, S.C., in 1995. Her drill instructor told her that women don't belong in the military, she said.

“As long as a woman can do what is required of her, and it's the same for men, I don't see a problem with it,” Patterson said.

The change won't take place overnight. Service chiefs will develop plans for allowing women to seek combat positions. Some jobs could open this year, but assessments for others, such as special operations forces, may take longer.

Many members of Congress said they support the plan.

“It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations,” said Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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