There is a looming deadline in the military that is causing a fundamental change in the way that American military training is conducted. Beginning in January 2016, the Pentagon has mandated that combat roles must be opened to women in all branches of the military. While all other sectors of the military have been integrated for some time, combat roles have until now continued to be a men only operation. The scope of the integration is staggering, as up until now the entire sector of special forces has been almost completely closed to women. Opening up these physically, psychologically and even socially rigorous areas of combat service is not simple, nor is it easy.
One of the most important pieces of this puzzle is the question of physical strength and whether women, who have not traditionally been asked to complete the same extreme physical training as have their male counterparts, are in fact physically capable of carrying the 100 pound packs which are required over long distances while still wearing heavy armor. Military capacity is the term used for the physical fitness and agility skills that are required for personnel in the field. All branches of the military have insisted that they will not change their military capacity requirements in order to accommodate women, however all branches have undertaken at least some level of investigation into the question of whether women will be able to integrate physically. Before the psychological questions can be addressed, the issue of the physical capacity of women to consistently hold those same skill levels must be answered.
The preparation for this integration has been years in the making. In a study which began 2014 and is still ongoing, the Marines enlisted 160 men and women along with the experts at the University of Pittsburgh in a study to investigate whether women were capable of completing the physical and mental challenges of prolonged and intense training. As a result of these investigations there has already been a pivot from the timed trials which at one time determined passing or failing to a whole assignment view of skills. The assertion is that the foundation of the skill is immovable even as the measurement of that skill is altered to accommodate the differing strengths of men and women in order to incorporate them both into combat roles.
While women do suffer a higher rate of injury during training, there have been women who have successfully completed many of the serious training physical training requirements that are part of combat readiness training. Currently the numbers are small, but there is evidence that at least a modicum of women will have the physical capacity that is necessary for combat.
Questions of Psychological Readiness in a Critical Situation
The most serious question that has been asked in the process of integration is whether women are going to be effective in casualty situations. Female soldiers consistently rank with higher stress levels than do their male counterparts in both combat and non-combat roles (Tarrasch, Lurie, Yanovich, & Moran, 2011). Stress responses are not a necessary indicator of performance in a given situation, however, and as such these increases are not guaranteed to be a factor in the field during a casualty situation.
According to a preliminary study published in 2010 by Luxton, Skopp, and Maguen, women are more likely to suffer depression when returning home from a deployment in which they were exposed to serious combat stressors like viewing casualties or witnessing violence, even when pre-deployment levels of depression were the same. Further research is needed to determine whether the level of depression leads to clinical depression or PTSD and what the differences are between men and women in those instances.
The biggest obstacle to understanding if and how women might differ in reaction to a critical situation in combat is that there is no comprehensive research on the subject. Currently there are not sound investigations into the psychological reactions of women to military life in general, to the stress of combat in particular, to women’s ability to survive in a combat situation while providing for their teammates. The most likely reason is that women have simply not been included in combat situations up until this point and as such there can be no research. The issue then becomes the mandate that has come from the Pentagon to make these changes without really fully understanding what the psychological ramifications might be.
Cultural Considerations & the Current Status
The masculine culture of the military offers another challenge to the ideal of full combat integration. Military positions are very highly influenced by gender roles, and women have most often been perceived as being more suited to a support nature rather than as the primary movers. Women have to fit themselves into a behemoth that was created by men, and one which has traditionally been very rigid in its social systems.
Just this week two women graduate from Army Ranger training, the first women to do so in the history of the elite combat organization. It is no small task, and Lt. Shaye Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest both recognize the weight of their burden as the first women to do so. This is as step in the direction of full combat integration, however the essential area of special forces is still limited to men (though there are elite teams of special forces support that work alongside traditional special forces and do include women). Both Haver and Griest agree that they would rather see women not become integrated than to see the standards lowered.
Whether the full integration will happen on schedule for January 2016 remains to be seen, as some insiders predict that special forces units will request a waiver from the Pentagon to free them from opening all roles to women.
Bowman, T. (2014). The Marines are looking for a few good (combat ready) women. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/07/07/327716479/the-marines-are-looking-for-a-few-good-combat-ready-women
Cooper, H. & Oppel, R. (2015). Two graduating rangers, aware of their burden. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/21/us/military-weighs-role-of-women-army-ranger-graduates.html?_r=0
Luxton, D., Skopp, N., & Maguen, S. (2010). GENDER DIFFERENCES IN DEPRESSION AND PTSD SYMPTOMS FOLLOWING COMBAT EXPOSURE. Depression and Anxiety, 27(11), 1027-1033.
Tarrasch, R., Lurie, O., Yanovich, R., & Moran, D. (2011). Psychological aspects of the integration of women into combat roles. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 305-309.