Shine Basic Training: What Does the Military's New Women in Combat Policy Mean?

Women in military combat: not a fantasy.Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's historic announcement that women may now serve in military combat has equal-rights advocates cheering--but many civilians scratching their heads.

For starters, nearly 140 female soldiers have already died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, and more than 800 have been wounded. If the now-ended Combat Exclusion Policy didn't allow them on front lines, how did it happen? And what does the new policy actually mean?

We turned to experts including Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women's Action Network, which works for military equality and challenged the federal ban with a lawsuit brought by the ACLU in 2012, to break down the details of the policy change for Shine readers. Here's what we learned:

There are no laws prohibiting women from combat units.
Those were repealed in the early 1990s. However, since then, it has been U.S. military policy to restrict women from certain units and military occupations, particularly ground combat units. Specifically, the policy says that women may not be assigned to units whose primary mission is to "engage in direct combat on the ground," Jacob, a former infantry commander in the Marines, explained to Yahoo! Shine.

Women have already been in combat for years.
"What's happened in Iraq and Afghanistan is that there's been a tactical requirement for women to be used on the battlefield," Jacob said, explaining that, because of social customs that insist women be searched at checkpoints by women, or informational meetings involving diplomats and their wives having another woman present, for example, units with no women have run into roadblocks. "So they figured out a work-around," he said. Instead of assigning women to the units, they would attach them, temporarily. But this had led to two main problems: women joining units they hadn't trained with, which put them at greater risk; and women not getting credit for their combat service after returning to their home units—which affected their getting promotions, combat awards, veteran benefits and more. Even though women were engaging in combat, there was no official way of acknowledging it. So it was like it never happened.

The ban has excluded women from about 238,000 positions.
Those positions are too many to name, of course, but include things that go beyond ground combat, like serving as para-rescue jumpers or combat air controllers in the Air Force, for example. Many of the till-now off-limits jobs prepare service members for more advanced assignments later in their careers, and that's created a talent drain. Kind of like a "brass ceiling," noted Anne M. Coughlin, while speaking to Melissa Block on NPR. Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School whose research inspired a lawsuit brought by two women in the Army Reserve, said, "80 percent of the leadership positions in the military are drawn from the combat arms specialties. And women just can't have those specialties. And so that means that they just can't advance through the ranks and up the hierarchy in the same way that their male counterparts can."

It's still unclear if women will be permitted to fight in certain Special Forces.
Under the new policy, each branch of service has until January 2016 to apply for an exception, but must make a specific case for why a certain job is not suited for women. "The fact that you have to apply for an exception tells us that the intent behind this change is to open up all positions to qualified women," Jacob said. "Because there has to be a really, really valid reason for the exception." Even in elite units, like the Army Rangers and Delta Force, which has a very "insular culture," he said.

The military's physical requirement policy may or may not get updated.
This is not yet known, but, "We don't want it to change," said Jacob, explaining that it's SWAN's hope that standards not be lowered, and that all are held to the same high standards, men or women.

Worry about sexual entanglements helped keep the ban in place.
"It rests on the idea that if you put men and women together in closed quarters, there's necessarily going to be some kind of rivalry, perhaps some kind of sexual flirtation that will arise, and they just can't bond in the same way that a single-sex unit can," Coughlin explained on NPR. "That argument is based on stereotypes. And the work that we've seen women doing in Afghanistan and Iraq gives the lie to that argument as well as to others."

Still others have been worrying about the dreadful conditions of war. Ryan Smith, a former Marine infantry squad leader in Iraq, writes about various gruesome details in the Wall Street Journal. He mentions extreme overcrowding in assault vehicles, as well as being forced to urinate and defecate into bags and bottles in front of each other while on the move in these vehicles for up to 48 hours straight. And he details problems like dysentery, being covered in sores from wearing hot chemical protective suits, and not showering for weeks at a stretch.

"Yes, a woman is as capable as a man of pulling a trigger," Smith writes. "But the goal of our nation's military is to fight and win wars. Before taking the drastic step of allowing women to serve in combat units, has the government considered whether introducing women into the above-described situation would have made my unit more or less combat effective?"

Other issues to worry about, a stream of stories around the web suggests, include emotions, infections, physical capabilities, and the high rate of unplanned pregnancies among women in the military, according to a new study analyzing Department of Defense data. The rate of 10.5 percent of more than 7,000 women surveyed is higher than it is in the U.S. population. Unplanned pregnancy also prevented deployment for many women, according to the Huffington Post. Overall, 11 percent of female service personnel scheduled to ship out were not able to in the previous year because of a pregnancy.

Still, noted a cautiously optimistic Coughlin about the overturned ban, "This is a very extraordinary thing for the federal government to have been doing in the 21st century, saying to people you cannot have this job because of your sex. You might fit, you might be strong, you might be psychologically durable, but you're a woman, and you just can't do it."