Women in the U.S. military are barred from the front lines and direct ground combat, thanks to a long-held belief that female soldiers suffer more serious combat-related stress and post-deployment mental-health problems. But the Pentagon may have underestimated the women who serve: According to a new study, women warriors may be as resilient as men.
The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq make it difficult to keep female soldiers completely out of harm’s way: More than 200,000 women have served in those two wars over the past 10 years, many in positions that put them at risk for gunfights and other combat situations. About 750 women soldiers have been wounded or killed in combat since 2009.
“I know what the law says, and I know what it requires, but I’d be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today or who served in Iraq over the last few years did so without facing the same risks of their male counterparts,” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,told NPR in March.
The Pentagon is already under pressure to reverse its policy on women in combat, and a new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychologyseems to offer evidence that may justify the change. According to the study, female service members deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007 and 2008 experienced levels of combat-related stress similar to that of male soldiers—and recovered from it, and from post-deployment mental health impacts, as well as male soldiers did.
So much for women being the weaker sex.
“Contrary to popular belief, women who go to war respond to combat trauma much like their male counterparts,” lead author Dawne Vogt of the Veterans Administration National Center for PTSD and the Boston University School of Medicine said in a statement. “And with the unpredictable guerrilla tactics of modern warfare, barring women from ground combat is less meaningful.”
The researchers surveyed 595 service members, including 340 women on active duty, National Guard, and Reserve forces. According to the study, they “used stress measures that included exposure to combat involving firing a weapon, being fired on, and witnessing injury and death; experiencing consequences of combat, such as observing or handling human remains and dealing with detainees; enduring difficult living situations in the war zone; and fearing for one’s safety.”
Men reported more exposure to combat and war-zone living conditions, which makes sense given the law against women on the front lines. But, the study says, few gender differences were reported in levels of post-traumatic stress, mental health functioning, and depression.
The policy banning women from serving in combat roles was established in 1994 by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin. Known as the Apsin Rule, it states: “Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions to which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” “Direct combat” is defined as “engaging the enemy on the ground with individual or crew-served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire, and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel.”
But in today’s wars, there’s no single front line. So, while women can’t be part of an artillery unit or the infantry, they can be in support roles, logistic roles, or medical roles that put them in the middle of combat anyway. In March, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission issued a report in which they recommended ending the exclusion of women in combat, but the 1994 law remains in effect.
While the lack of gender differences may indicate that women soldiers are better trained now than they were before, the study points out that the findings “findings have substantial implications for military policy” because “they call into question the commonly held belief that women may be more vulnerable to the negative effects of combat exposure than men.”
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