In an historic 2015 announcement, Defense Secretary Ash Carter declared all combat positions would now be open to women. It was not welcome news to everyone, particularly those concerned that the military will be forced to lower standards to accommodate the new gender parity.
Included in this view was then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, a Marine general with several tours of duty in the Iraq War and Afghanistan. At the time of the Carter announcement, Dunford presented an internal Marine Corps study with evidence that women suffered drawbacks not only in the more obvious areas involving strength and stamina, but were more likely to get injured in training and were much less capable of hitting a target. All of which Carter simply pooh-poohed as “just not definitive, not determinative.”
Meanwhile, “all” combat positions mean “all,” and that includes special operations units. And so to international fanfare (over 750,000 Google hits), the public was informed in July that a woman had become the first to try out for the uber-rigorous training of the best-known special operations unit in the world, the U.S. Navy SEALs. To rather less ado, but according to multiple reliable sources and a report in the veterans’ webzine Task and Purpose, that woman has already “dropped on request”—not during the actual BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) course, but a vastly easier, three-week pre-BUD/S selection and conditioning course. The Special Warfare Center “will neither confirm nor deny” it.
Another female officer volunteered for training in the less-demanding but still very tough Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman program, basically today’s equivalent of the Swift Boats that plied Vietnamese rivers and coasts. Overall, the attrition rate for SEAL candidates is 73 to 75 percent, and 63 percent for SWCC, according to the Navy.
The drop-out was not unexpected for retired SEAL Lt. Commander Andrew Paul. Paul was an assistant platoon commander for Task Unit Bruiser, Seal Team 3, during the bitterly fought Battle of Ramadi in 2006. This was the most decorated SEAL Team since Vietnam and included the first SEAL to win the Medal of Honor in Iraq (posthumously). I was there as a photojournalist covering the fighting at the time.
“The SEAL teams are already so effective that arguably they’re the finest fighting force on the planet,” Paul told me in an interview, clearly not in favor of opening up the SEALs to women. “Why do you want to mess with that?”
As commanding General H. Norman Schwarzkopf declared in the 1991 Gulf War, “War is not a Nintendo game.” The accuracy of support weapons such as aircraft and artillery has improved, but battles are still decided by the grit and competency of the people on the ground. And both actual combat and the experience of combat conditions have actually become more difficult since Vietnam because of one simple factor – body armor.
Nevertheless, President Barack Obama opened all military positions to women and President Donald Trump, who like Obama never served in the military, supported that position during the election. Trump specifically included special operations.
Both men are wrong. With overall Army and Marine strength shrinking and with special ops now operating in a stunning 138 countries (as The American Conservative recently reported), these units are now under enormous pressure (as that same article noted). The “mission” is victory with minimum casualties, not providing equal opportunity between genders, says Paul.
But haven’t women already graduated from special ops schools?
While I was stationed at Fort Bragg as a paratrooper in 1980, Army Capt. Kathleen Wilder was awarded the most famous headgear in the U.S. military, the Green Beret. The Army said she failed the strenuous guerrilla field exercise, and though she qualified for Special Forces, she was not, at first, in line for the Green Beret. She appealed, saying she was the victim of gender discrimination, that several men who did worse than her on the test graduated with the distinction nonetheless. She won her appeal in 1981. No woman since then has ever passed the school.
In 2015 two women did graduate from Ranger School and two more did so in April of this year. Ranger school may be less rigorous than Navy BUD/S, but it’s still very tough. No woman has completed the Marine Infantry Officer Course, which is considered easier. The last of about 30 who tried was given two chances to complete the conditioning hikes and failed both.
So it is curious, then, that four women are now wearing the vaunted Ranger tab and camouflage beret. And one of the first two is 37, while the average age in the course is 23. So it’s not particularly shocking to hear that the Army surreptitiously cheated for them.
An expose in People magazine in September 2015, prompted by a Congressman’s inquiry, found that before the women began the course, an unnamed general told his subordinates “A woman will graduate Ranger School.” He said, “At least one will get through.” People cited “multiple sources” as saying:
• The women were first sent to a special two-week training in January to get them ready for the school, although the course didn’t start until late April. “Once there they were allowed to repeat the program until they passed—while men were held to a strict pass/fail standard.”
• They then spent months in a special platoon at Fort Benning getting, among other things, nutritional counseling and full-time training with a Ranger.
• The women were put in a special platoon where among other things they were taken out to the land navigation course. This is a particularly difficult aspect of the course (Hint: You can’t use your cell phone GPS) and is timed. Meanwhile the men got no preview.
• Once in Ranger school they were allowed to repeat key parts such as patrols. Men were not.
That congressman, by the way, was Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK), an Army Lieutenant Colonel and Ranger School graduate. His attempted investigation was thwarted by brass who informed him it appeared part of the records had been destroyed.
Given the pressure reportedly put on the Ranger School to pass those women, just how long can the other schools be expected to hold out? “Nobody within the [SEAL] community thinks the standards will be maintained,” alleges Paul.
More than just a “Men’s Club”?
But could all of this be because of a “Men’s Club” in the military? In fairness, American sports remained segregated long after it was apparent that blacks were certainly as qualified as whites athletically. But competition forced the owners’ hands. No law was required.
But here the great discriminator is biology.
A 1992 Presidential Commission report found that “the average female Army recruit is 4.8 inches shorter, 31.7 pounds lighter, has 37.4 fewer pounds of muscle, and 5.7 more pounds of fat than the average male recruit. She has only 55 percent of the upper-body strength and 72 percent of the lower-body strength.” Moreover, “the average 20-to-30-year-old woman [recruit] has the same aerobic capacity as a 50-year-old man.” That’s important under any circumstances but in the forever war of Afghanistan, high in the mountains, peak strength and endurance means everything.
According to the Surgeon General’s office in 2011, “Army women are more likely to be disabled than men and are approximately 67 percent more likely than Army men to receive a physical disability discharge for a musculoskeletal disorder.” They’re more than five times as likely to suffer stress fractures.
Tremendously aggravating this disparity is the now-universal use of body armor in combat areas—not just in combat. At Camp Corregidor in Ramadi in 2006 we had to wear armor not just “outside the wire” (beyond the camp perimeter) but even within, because of mortar attacks that killed soldiers. The newest armor is lighter but still weighs about 30–35 pounds depending on the size of the wearer, and the helmet adds another 3–4 pounds. Counting all equipment, the Marine Corps puts the average combat load at 83 pounds. The healthy weight for a U.S. woman of average size is only 104-135 pounds. A friend of mine lost over an inch in height during his year-long tour in Ramadi. Later in Afghanistan body armor, normal load, and extra load that I carried as a photojournalist herniated two of my lumbar disks and ended my days of combat reporting.
How are women to handle this burden? Train harder? No. These people are already pushed to their limits and special ops are pushed beyond.
In 2012, when the issue wasn’t even special ops but just women in combat, Marine Capt. Katie Petronio published a powerful essay entitled, “Get Over it; We Are Not All Created Equal.” She knew what she was talking about: Her body was broken by two combat deployments. Due to the time she spent in full combat load, she suffered numerous nerve damage and physical problems. “It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions.” For Petronio, that included permanent infertility, which she blames on her deployment.
I can say with 100 percent assurance that despite my accomplishments, there is no way I could endure the physical demands of the infantrymen whom I worked beside as their combat load and constant deployment cycle would leave me facing medical separation long before the option of retirement. I understand that everyone is affected differently; however, I am confident that should the Marine Corps attempt to fully integrate women into the infantry, we as an institution are going to experience a colossal increase in crippling and career-ending medical conditions for females.
Both as a victim of the concept of an egalitarian military and a combat veteran, Petronio notes the non-gender discrimination within the Corps:
Marines who can run first-class physical fitness tests and who have superior [occupational] proficiency are separated from the Service if they do not meet the Marine Corps’ height and weight standards. Further, tall Marines are restricted from flying specific platforms, and color blind Marines are faced with similar restrictions. We recognize differences in mental capabilities of Marines when we administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and use the results to eliminate/open specific fields.
In fact, a Marine Corps evaluation two years ago showed that all-male units greatly outperformed mixed-gender units in just about every capacity. The women performed their tasks more slowly, fired weapons with less accuracy, and sustained far more injuries during training than their male counterparts.
It’s not condescending so say that civilians don’t understand combat. Quite the opposite; it is condescending for them to pretend they do. Just as it would be condescending for a soldier to pretend to be an expert in theoretical physics, scratch out a particle accelerator on paper, and demand it be built. That women are demonstrably weaker, more breakable, have drastically less lung capacity, and even shoot less accurately—it’s all simply ignored.
If it continues to be, in favor of opening up these elite forces in the name of gender equality, the military risks lowering standards and ultimately, putting lives on the line.
Michael Fumento, U.S. Army Airborne 1978–82, is a journalist specializing in science and health issues, an author of five books, and an attorney. He was embedded three times in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He can reached at [email protected]