United States Air Force Academy   Right Corner Banner
Join the Air Force

News > Commentary - Opening combat positions for women essential to diversity, future Air Force
Previous ImageNext Image
1st Air Force female pilot in combat reflects on career
Lt. Col. Martha McSally stands with her A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. McSally, a 1988 Air Force Academy graduate, is the first female pilot in the Air Force to fly in combat and to serve as a squadron commander of a combat aviation squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Download HiRes
Related Stories
 AF to open remaining combat positions to women - 1/24/2013
Opening combat positions for women essential to diversity, future Air Force

Posted 1/29/2013   Updated 1/31/2013 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Don Branum
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

1/29/2013 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Jan. 24 announcement that he would lift restrictions on women in combat positions has stirred up quite a bit of discussion. Anyone who wants a stronger U.S. military should welcome the lifting of combat restrictions and what that change means for readiness and diversity within the armed forces.

It's important to note a couple of key facts: First, women have been involved in combat since well before the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks. Second, Panetta has made clear he does not expect the services to change the physical requirements for demanding jobs such as Air Force pararescue, Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets or other special operations programs.

One name comes immediately to my mind when I think of women who have seen combat: 1st Lt. Roslyn Schulte, a 2006 Air Force Academy graduate who was killed in action while deployed to Afghanistan in May 2009.

Less recent names of note take a bit more digging, but they're not hard to find: 

-- Retired Col. Martha McSally, a 1988 graduate who flew in support of Operations Southern Watch and Enduring Freedom;
-- Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, a 1996 graduate who flew in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom;
-- Lt. Col. Kim Campbell, a '97 graduate who took part in air operations over Baghdad, Iraq, in April 2003.

While the physical requirements for pilots differ from those for many special operations career fields, flying in combat carries the significant risk of being shot down and either killed or captured.

More importantly, the strategy of asymmetrical warfare popular with the Taliban and al-Qaida doesn't recognize "combat roles" or front lines. Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson and Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch were assigned to the Army Quartermaster Corps, but that didn't stop Iraqi army forces from ambushing their convoy in March 2003. Johnson and Lynch were taken prisoner and later rescued, while Piestewa was killed.

Still, Panetta's decision isn't without controversy. On the Air Force's official website, "Brandon" from Miami writes, in part, "Men are naturally hardwired to protect women even if it is with our lives." Notwithstanding the fact that service members are trained to protect any of their fellow brothers or sisters in uniform, I've yet to see any scientific evidence to corroborate Brandon's assumption.

The decision could also help solve a long-term problem: the lack of diversity within the Pentagon's top ranks. According to a 2009 Defense Manpower Data Center statistics, fewer than 10 percent of general officers across the services are women, even though women made up 16 percent of the active-duty officer corps.

It took nearly 65 years from the day Esther Blake joined the Air Force until Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger (a 1980 Academy graduate) became the Air Force's first female four-star general. A big stumbling block has traditionally been a lack of combat experience, but you can't get combat experience if you're not allowed to serve -- and lead -- in combat roles.

That wasn't fair to women, so Panetta fixed it.

As James Hill of Columbia, Tenn., wrote on the Air Force website, "As a 32-year veteran, all I have to say is, go for it. In my 79 years of life, I have learned that women can be tough as nails. I saw my son ... make a pararescueman, and I know his daughter is as tough as he is."

People are going to worry about unit cohesion anytime something happens to change a unit's composition. It was true for racial desegregation in 1948; it was true when Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed in 2011, and it's true now. People even get nervous about new unit commanders or permanent changes of station. It's easier to make up reasons for change-related anxiety than it is to admit you don't know what might happen. But if past experience is any indication, the armed forces will be just fine.

2/11/2013 6:01:50 PM ET
Two questions and one statement 1.When did bullets start discriminating against genders race religion or national origin2.If youre under fire do you really care if the person next to you is a man or a woman as long as she or he can shoot and hit the targetI come from a past where women were not allowed to do much of anything in the military but the ones I did have the great honor of serving with were outstanding and I cannot imagine in this day and age of suburb Airman and Airwomen that this subject is even being discussed. We need Americans to stand up and be counted regardless of gender or any other nonsense that would separate us.
Tony, Fort Lauderdale Fl
2/6/2013 4:25:13 PM ET
The mission does not exist to get you promoted repeat your promotion is not a mission focus. If women were being held back from advancing due to not participating in combat ops then the answer is find away to solve that problem... you do not change the mission because someone wants to get paid more. There should be no mens and women's standards here one standard and if you can't meet it no waivers-no nothing then you don't do it. It amazes me how bad our trophies for all culture has become. Service before self means you serve the mission and not your own need for promotion or recognition. The reason to make this change is because qualified people aren't being used not because people aren't being promoted for not being in the mission. Diversity is not a consideration Mission accomplishment is and when you subjugate the mission to personal goals failure is near.
2/3/2013 9:11:26 AM ET
This article is an embarrassment to af.mil. Fair has nothing to do with the discussion. Exactly how has a lack of diversity been a problem We have managed to slaughter our enemies just fine so far. Given it takes 24 years to make General a more relevant statistic would be to look at the makeup of force back in the late 1980's. You completely ignore the fact that many very talented women could continue a career but choose to leave the Air Force. I saw it happen many times. And what about career fields heavily dominated by women are they less effective than a balanced mix Lastly it is far too early to draw any conclusions about the repeal of DADT.
Stump, Colorado
2/2/2013 5:09:44 PM ET
As long as they don't change the requirements I'm all for it as a former CCT in the AF. I'm sure thre are some woman that could do the job. If you look at some of the things the teams do having a woman accomping a jan would blend in a lot easyier then a couple of men. Just an example.
Michael Sullivan CMSgt ret., south Florida
2/2/2013 9:53:51 AM ET
Although Panetta says the standards won't be lowered when they don't achieve the results of diversity that they desire training schools will be encouraged and nudged to comply. After all if men and women were biologically the same we would already have equal physical performance standards. I pity current military officers who will have to deal with all the unnecessary logistical issues that this sociological experiement will present. In combat the priority is KILLING THE ENEMY not celebrating diversity
Bob, Tucson Arizona
2/1/2013 9:42:30 PM ET
Buzzword Alert Diversity Quotas
J.T., Crestview FL
2/1/2013 2:35:34 PM ET
If you support this action by the Pentagon then I believe you must also support a women's draft the next time there is a draft. The objection from moms and dads in having their girls drafted will be severe but not drafting them will be hypocritical.
Robin Dailey, Colorado Springs Colorado
2/1/2013 1:39:58 PM ET
It is wonderful to see political correctness is alive and well at USAFA. Of course that is sarcasm Neither political correctness nor diversity will add positively to the strength of the Air Force our military or the nation as should be painfully obvious to the most casual observer of our country's history over the last 45 years. It may make people feel good but it will not help. Also please remember that our general staffs and political leaders do a fantastic job at planning for the last war. Are we sure that the next war will be asymmetric in nature
Yossarian, Colorado
2/1/2013 11:43:46 AM ET
Gents your statements are all based on the assumption that the standards will be lowered for women. They won't. Panetta has already said they won't be lowered. So by definition any woman who makes it through training is going to be just as physically and mentally capable as men who are already doing the job.
Don Branum, Air Force Academy
1/31/2013 3:38:29 PM ET
Opening up of combat positions may or may not be the correct thing to do. But I do no that DIVERSITY is NOT a reason to do it. If it improves COMBAT ability then it should be done but that should be the ONLY reason. Opening up combat positions for people over 80 and under 15 would be a boon to diversity but it WOULD NOT be good for Combat effectiveness. Like I said it may or may not be good for combat effectiveness but that should be the ONLY thing under consideration. Either that or change the mission to fly fight and be diverse.
Jerry, Oklahoma
1/31/2013 11:49:53 AM ET
Getting shot at while flying in a jet and being blown up in a convoy is not what Panetta is talking about. They are talking about infantry special operations forces and so on. Just because a woman can fly an A-10 over the bad guys does not mean she can hump a 100lb pack a weapon and body armor up a 7000 foot mountain. Just because you get shot at at the wrong place at the wrong time does not automatically warrant the status of having seen combat.
Igotthisbro, FOB
1/29/2013 8:30:57 PM ET
What was the phyical ability and stanima involved in being killed by an IED while driving along in a HUMVEEWhat are the combat sortie frequencies and ground to air envioronment in comparison to flying combat over Vietnam Cambodia Laos durng the 60s-70s Korea between 1950-53 and to and from targets during WW11Does flying in combat flying in combat carry the significant risk of being shot down and either killed or captured. What is the combat flying hour to combat loss statistics to back up what is being implied and inferred in air combat risks to ground combat risks
John, Anchorage Alaska
Add a comment

 Inside USAFA

ima cornerSearch

tabAir Force Academy Social Media
  Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube
  More info on our Social Media page.
tabAcademy News
tabAcademy Links
tabOther Academy Sites

Site Map      Contact Us     Questions     USA.gov     Security and Privacy notice     E-publishing  
Suicide Prevention    SAPR   IG   EEO   Accessibility/Section 508   No FEAR Act