On Jan. 24, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta lifted a ban on female soldiers fighting in combat, and although the conversation started in Washington, it has New Paltz students talking.
In Afghanistan, when fourth-year history major and war veteran Rebeca Nolan witnessed a male soldier “freeze up” during an attack, unable to shoot, unable to move, her last instinct was to blame it on the fact that he was a man.
“Gender is not a factor in this matter,” Nolan, who served a year in Afghanistan from April 2006 to 2007 and 22 months in Iraq between June 2007 and May 2009, said. “Men and women come in all types of toughness. Some can cut it and some can’t and that is the most important part.”
For 27-year-old Nolan, seeing a soldier choke during high-stakes combat was not a reflection upon their sex, which is why she supports the Pentagon’s recent decision that has some conservatives up in arms.
“The change really doesn’t do anything but recognize women who have and will serve under combat conditions,” Nolan said. “It will open some jobs for women that were not available to them because of their gender.”
Nolan said that if women are in combat zones, no one can truly control what gender must engage in combat fighting, and that “over the past 10 years, many women have served under combat conditions and have matched and/or exceeded their male counterparts.”
According to a recent Pew Research study, out of 1,005 adults surveyed, 66 percent support the lifting of the ban while 26 percent oppose it. Only 8 percent remain unsure, including fourth-year visual arts major Tommy Tyrel.
Tyrel, who was on active duty for the army from 2002 to 2005 and served a year in Iraq, said he was shocked by the news.
“I never thought it would happen,” Tyrel said.
Although Tyrel said he is “more leaning towards” supporting the lift of the ban, he has some hesitations that prevent him from completely supporting it.
One of his main concerns are the physical limitations he said women may encounter compared to their male counterparts.
“Being captured [in battle] could happen to either sex,” Tyrel, 29, said. “I just feel in a hand-to-hand situation, you put a very small girl against a very large man…the odds are against her basically, more than they would be for a man who had an equal amount of training but more strength and more body weight.”
Tyrel also said an advantage is infantry women being able to communicate with civilian women in countries where male-female interaction is prohibited.
Despite his uncertainties, Tyrel said women should “go for it.”
“I kind of follow what I was taught when I went through the military, which was that ‘Everybody’s green. Not black, not white,’” Tyrel said. “‘We are all the same.’”
All military service branches have until May 15 to finalize plans for the integration of women, though some New Paltz students are concerned politicians may push to add exemptions and new standards attempting to bar women from combat positions.
For fourth-year intercultural/interpersonal communications major Barbara Cvenic, this possibility is likely to turn into a reality.
“I’m sure the Pentagon has a specific policy toward combat soldiers and who is eligible to be in combat based upon some criteria, like physical tests, and I’m sure that they’ll develop a policy for women,” Cvenic said. “Now should there be a different policy regarding men and women? That’s a different question.”
First-year English and communication disorders double-major Cait O’Connor’s answer to that question is that physical testing should be based on the physical dimensions of the body rather than on sex.
“It can’t be based on gender because every single body is different, every single body is capable of different levels of physical strength,” O’Connor, a member of the SUNY New Paltz Feminist Collective, said. “It would take the military a lot of time to design different standards for every single weight and height, but that’s the only way you can really measure how effective someone will be.”
O’Connor said the Feminist Collective discussed this topic in meetings, but may host a public forum eventually. She said other military forums she’s attended were successful and she remains optimistic about the new policy.
“Thinking back to World War I, there were propaganda signs that said ‘I wish I was a man, then I could join the US Navy.’ Now that doesn’t have to be a dream,” O’Connor said. “Now it can be a reality. And you don’t have to be a man to do it.”
* Editors Note: In an effort to be transparent as possible, we wish to inform our readers that Cait O’Connor previously served as a Copy Editor for “The Oracle” for one issue last semester.