History Has Been Made

The news just broke: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat. The move will open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions to women, clearing away the daunting career barriers that have been in place since a 1994 rule that prohibited women from being assigned to small ground combat units (of course, thousands of women have been “attached” to such units and the world did not end).

I have covered this issue for more than two decades and wrote about military women’s long slog toward acceptance, most recently here.

No doubt, social conservatives will decry the move as the end of civilization and at least one gadfly will use the announcement to raise funds for her questionable organization. But women are already on the front line and this nation could not go to war without them.

It was true back in 1999, when I shared a leaky, muddy tent in Albania with women warriors during the Kosovo War:

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And it remains true to this day in Afghanistan.

Bravo to the Pentagon for lifting the already irrelevant ban on women in combat.

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PTSDrone

Who doesn’t know that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a growing problem among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? I’ve written about the toll combat stress has taken on women warriors back from the post-9/11 wars and how what was once known as “shell shock” still haunts World War II veterans.

But today I went on HuffPost Live with host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin to talk about a new kind of combat stress: the toll on U.S.-based crews who remotely control drones thousands of miles away from the physical battlefield. They may get to go home to their families at night but the stress on these airmen is just as serious.

Read about the segment here and see what others are saying here.

And be sure to check out my perspective as a reporter who went to Utah to interview the surviving crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and more recently to Colorado to talk to the next generation of drone pilots at the Air Force Academy.

Covering Women in the Military

In 2010, the Navy opened submarines to women. As I wrote for AOL News:

For someone who never served in the military, I’ve walked a lot of miles of Pentagon corridors and eaten in more DFACs than is good for anybody. During more than two decades as a correspondent for USA TODAY, including a long stint at the Pentagon, and now reporting and writing for AOL News, I have chronicled the ups and downs of women warriors.

Whether sharing a tent with female helicopter pilots during the Kosovo War or interviewing a female MP “attached” to a combat unit in Iraq, I was privileged to be able to document the advances made by women in the military.

Fort Stuart, Ga., 1997

Like the photo? That’s me in the my early Pentagon reporting days — before I realized public affairs officers weren’t supposed to provide reporters with a personalized BDU (battle dress uniform). This was taken at Fort Stuart, Ga., where I went to profile the new generation of female commanders, incuding a female colonel who tucked a pistol under her pillow while sleeping in a tent out in the field.

Read the story about my 20 years covering the evolution of a more (but not perfectly) equal armed forces. The headline said it all: For Women in Military, a Long Slog Toward Acceptance.

Women Warriors and PTSD 2008

The Iraq War was starting to wind down when I traveled to California to meet the first all-Iraq-war-veteran class at the Women’s Trauma Recovery Program at the VA’s residential treatment center in Menlo Park. I found another troubled legacy of war: women warriors not only suffering from battlefield stress but also haunted by another demon: military sexual trauma. It was one of the most memorable, and troubling, cover stories I ever wrote for USA TODAY. You can read it here.

I also went on CNN’s This Week at War to talk to host Tom Foreman about the mental toll on women troops and how the Pentagon was struggling to adapt. You can read what I had to say toward the end of the segment here.