Veterans Kayla Williams and Mike Breen Discuss Misconceptions of Allowing Women in Combat

Sargent Sheena Adams, 25, Hospital Corpsman Shannon Crowley, 22, and Lance Corporal Kristi Baker, 21, US Marines with the FET (Female Engagement Team) 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Regimental Combat team II pose at their forward operating base on November 17, 2010 in Musa Qala, Afghanistan. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

At a panel hosted by the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy Thursday, two veterans — one male and one female — tried to dispel what they believe are misconceptions many still have about females serving on the front lines. Included in the fascinating discussion: integrated units could actually ​reduce ​sexual assault, how women can strengthen special forces, and even how female soldiers don’t need to sit to use the bathroom in the field.

The discussion of women in combat might have been at a low rumble for the last 10 years since the restriction became blurred for females serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifting the 1994 rule that prevented women from being assigned to small, ground combat units last month, the long-held debate exploded and discussions regarding implementation continue.

Earlier this month, the results of a survey, which were given to the Associated Press, listed the many concerns those in the Marine Corps had about allowing women — who only compose 15 percent of the military — to serve in combat. To name a few, concerns included:

  • Being falsely accused of sexual harassment or assault;
  • Possible fraternization and preferential treatment of some Marines; and
  • Pregnancy or personal issues that could affect a unit before it’s sent to the battlefield.

Kayla Williams, a former sergeant who was at the forefront of troops’ interactions with Iraqis during her deployment, and Mike Breen, former U.S. Army Officer with assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan who now servers as the executive director of the Truman National Security Project, took on such concerns in Thursday’s discussion.

On the topic of sexual assault, Williams first pointed out that 86 percent of assaults in the military are not even reported. With that, she believes the current atmosphere, which seems to discourage reporting of assault cases, needs to change. If victims of assault are known to be more likely to report cases of such crimes — and the proper disciplinary action is taken against offenders — such incidents might be avoided in the first place.

Williams and Breen both said they believed opening combat roles to women would decrease causes of assault, not increase it. This notion was recently shared by Gen. Martin Dempsey and others at a press conference. Here’s more on those thoughts from the Christian Science monitor:

“I believe it’s because we’ve had separate classes of military personnel, at some level,” [Dempsey] said at a press conference [in January].

[...]

It is a sentiment that is echoed among advocates for victims of sexual assault.

“When you have legalized discrimination against women, there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a link there,” says Anu Baghwati, a former company commander in the Marine Corps.

“I experienced it firsthand as a woman officer in the Marines. There’s a constant reminder by your peers that you’re not as strong, you’re not as competent, which is not based on your actual, but your perceived performance,” she says. “And I think women would doubt themselves a lot less.”

Veterans Kayla Williams and Mike Breen Discuss Misconceptions of Allowing Women in Combat

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey (R) shake hands as they announce lifting the ban on women serving in front line combat roles during a media briefing January 24, 2013 at the Pentagon in Washington,DC. The announcment will open up hundreds of thousands of frontline positions for women in the infantry, tank, and in commando units. (Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Another prevalent concern about allowing females in combat is that they won’t physically — or emotionally — be able to stand it. Williams said this might be the case for some women, but included that there are other women who can do it. Breen agreed, saying he saw it first hand working alongside women in the Middle East. Even a veteran of the Vietnam War in the audience said the nurses seemed to handle some of the more horrific scenes better than some of the male doctors at the time.

Creating a quantitative and qualitative standard for each job needs to be done by the military first. Then, Williams said, both men and women would need to prove they can meet that standard. She noted that some men who currently hold a certain position, might not even meet the requirement. To prove her point, Williams gave Justin Beiber vs. Venus Williams examples for potential military candidates.

“There are strong and weak in every combat unit,” Breen said, regardless if there is a female member. “[Allowing women in combat] will only make special ops stronger, not weaker.”

And what about the more logistical things about being a female in combat, like pregnancy/babies and hygiene (menstruation and urinating)?

Williams said there were special devices that would allow a woman to urinate standing up, making it easier, and birth control can be taken to stop menstruation all together during deployment. As for babies and pregnancy, women are not deployable when they’re pregnant, but Williams pointed out that stats show men missing more days of work due to several factors, including disciplinary measures, than female soldiers.

So why is now the right time to allow women to take on combat roles? Breen stated part of it is that there is now 10 years of data — since the start of the war in Iraq — showing that women can make successful soldiers in combat. Williams added that even when she was deployed she questioned if the atmosphere among the troops was ready to allow women in combat. Now, soldiers that were new to the military then have had a decade of experience working with women, which Williams said makes them more likely to embrace the idea.

If the data is there and the male leadership has had ample experience working with women in combat, and therefore should be more apt to accept them in new roles, where do such misconceptions like those listed above come from? Williams said many of them are held by civilians who have no sense, outside of Hollywood, what military service is like.

“It is the people who have never been in the military that ask me about the hygiene issue,” Williams said. “I want to ask them if they’ve ever gone camping?”

A poll by TheBlaze with more than 150,000 responses – 65 percent male and 35 percent female — answered with a resounding 81 percent who said they do not support women in combat. The majority — 85 percent — also thought the military would be weakened by allowing women into combat roles. On the other hand, another survey conducted by Quinnipiac University found 75 percent of respondents were in favor of allowing women in combat.

Breen noted that men with little to no exposure to women in the military, like those in the infantry and some special operations roles, might be among those who will reserve to women’s new positions.

Still, “it is also a mistake to underestimate the military’s ability to respond to cultural shifts,” Breen said. “A great example is ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

Here is the panel’s discussion:

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