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Women Get Closer To Combat; Many Practically There


More than 200,000 women have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as we just heard, many of them alongside combat units. Kayla Williams is one of them. The former Army sergeant served as an intelligence specialist in Iraq in 2003. Intelligence collection is one of the jobs now being opened up to women at the battalion level, though the Pentagon still does not allow women to take on full-fledged combat roles. Kayla Williams joins me now to talk more about the implications of this change in Pentagon policy. Kayla, thanks so much for coming in.

KAYLA WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I want to start off by asking you to describe the work you were doing in Iraq during your deployment. Were you ever working closely with what would be considered Army combat units?

WILLIAMS: Yes. I did combat foot patrols with the infantry in Baghdad because I spoke Arabic and I was able to translate between them and the local people.

MARTIN: A lot of this debate has focused on the fact that there are no front lines in war anymore and that women are often finding themselves, as you did, in circumstances every day where you're facing combat, even though you weren't officially in a combat unit.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. When I was on those combat foot patrols, I actually did not have plates for my flak vest because it was assumed that as a female I wouldn't need them. But that isn't how the war went at all. This isn't World War II. There are no trenches and places back in the rear where everybody is safe and secure. Everybody who goes out on a convoy is in a combat zone. I spent months very forward deployed. I was the only female. We slept on cots under the open sky. These are the types of situations that many women have found themselves in since that initial invasion, since that time. And to me, this change in policy only makes the policy reflect the reality that we have been experiencing.

MARTIN: The Pentagon is going to try to get the services to implement what they're calling gender-neutral qualifications. In other words, gender ideally wouldn't be a factor in whether someone gets a certain job in the military. It'll be whether they can meet the physical requirements. Is this a good idea, do you think?

WILLIAMS: I completely believe that if certain jobs demand certain physical abilities, that everyone, male and female, should be required to meet those. Because while not all women can meet these physical requirements that may be demanded for combat arms jobs, not all male troops can either. And applying those same standards across the board I think is absolutely imperative.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about something that GOP presidential nominee Rick Santorum said just this past week. He said that allowing women into combat units could put that unit in what he called a, quote, "compromising situation" where emotions could get in the way of the task at hand. This is something that I've heard military officers express as a genuine concern, that male troops would perhaps take risks to protect a female in a unit and that that could undermine the mission. Is that a fair concern?

WILLIAMS: I do not believe that that is a fair concern. I never saw that happen while I was deployed when we were in dangerous situations. I also find it a little absurd because we reserve our nation's highest honors for troops who risk their own lives for the lives of their comrades. Why it would be a sign of valor for them to do so for their male comrades but somehow damaging to the military if they were to do so for a female comrade seems a little baffling to me.

MARTIN: You wrote a book and you talked about your own experience being a female member of an all-male unit and the fact that there were some tensions within the unit as a result of your presence there. So, these tensions can exist.

WILLIAMS: I was attached to all-male units on more than one occasion. In some situations, there were problems; in others there were not. Quite a bit of that had to do with the command climate that was set. I absolutely believe that military personnel can be counted on to act with professionalism and respect if that is what is expected and demanded of them. It is my opinion that the combat exclusion policy actually increases the risk of sexual harassment by making it clear to infantry troops that female personnel are not considered full soldiers. It institutionalizes women's status as second-class citizens within the military.

MARTIN: Kayla Williams is a veteran army sergeant who served in Iraq in 2003. She's also the author of the book "Love My Rifle More Than You." Kayla Williams, thanks so much for talking with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.