(Editors note-The following is a commentary by a female who completed a Physical Fitness Tests and Standards study at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The Airman was a volunteer in the fitness study, which supports the Air Force’s Women in Service Review. The study aims to scientifically establish occupationally-specific, operationally-relevant physical fitness standards for Battlefield Airmen. Since the study is ongoing, involving human subjects, the anonymity of volunteers is mandated by the Institutional Review Board.)
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not females are capable of being successful in the last few ‘male only’ combat career fields. Reasons for skepticism range from doubts over physical capabilities, to concerns over how it would change unit cohesion, to how pregnancy might affect military readiness.
These uncertainties are not unique to today’s debate; they are the same concerns that have been raised throughout the history of women in combat.
In 1975, during debates over allowing women into the military academies, Lt. Gen. Albert P. Clark, Air Force Academy superintendent, said women were a potential threat to productivity and cohesion and that integration would lead to marriages, pregnancies and abortions.
In 1991, Congress voted to amend the law that barred women from flying combat missions, but according to an article in the New York Times, senior military officers were opposed because they claimed combat forces required superior physical strength and endurance.
Even as recently as 2012, just before the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule was rescinded, the argument was made that allowing females in these roles would create “disruptions to cohesion and high rates of attrition,” according to congressional research conducted by David F. Burrelli, specialist in military manpower policy.
There will always be people who think women aren’t combat capable, but for two weeks, I got to spend my time sweating, bleeding and pushing myself with some of the most capable women I have ever met. Women who proved that no matter what standard is set or obstacles put in front of them, they will persevere.
Currently there are still six career fields in the Air Force that are closed to women known as Battlefield Airmen specialties: Special Tactics Officers, Combat Rescue Officers, Special Operations Weather Enlisted, Combat Control, Tactical Air Control Party and Pararescue. Recently, I had the chance to participate in an Air Force study to develop an operationally relevant fitness standard for these Battlefield Airmen.
Participants in the study were from all different career fields, male and female, but several were already Battlefield Airmen taking part to provide their feedback on the relevancy of the different exercises and how well the simulations mimicked combat situations.
Regardless of gender, career, ethnicity, age or any other extraneous factor, all participants were held to the same standard. We were given the same amount of weight to carry, the same distance to run, and the same objectives to meet.
It was not easy. There was one point where I literally hit a wall. It was the last day of the study and I had already pushed myself further than I thought possible. My heart was racing, my clothes were dripping with sweat, my feet were bleeding and that five foot wall seemed like an impossible obstacle.
As I stood there looking at this wall, trying to catch my breath and wondering how on earth I was going to do this, I heard someone yell out “come on, you’re bigger than that wall is!” They were right; I was bigger than the wall, and I was bigger than the pain I was experiencing in that moment. I gathered what little I had left in me and hoisted myself up and over that seemingly impossible roadblock…only to come face to face with an eight foot wall.
Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I failed, but so did everyone. What got us through was that we did it together. Nobody cared if you were male or female, or what career field you were in; they cheered for you and motivated you to do your best as if we had been working together for years.
Opening the last few career fields to women should not be about whether females are physically capable or how pregnancy might affect operational readiness. It should be about maximizing our military capability by pulling from the most diverse group of qualified individuals we can to accomplish the mission.
Throughout history, women have proven that they have the ability, qualifications and drive to be included in combat roles. Those last six career fields are no different. During my two weeks participating in the Air Force’s study, success was not gender based; both men and women excelled.
The Air Force is dedicated to validating and maintaining the high standards for becoming a Battlefield Airman. At the end of the day, it’s not about whether you’re a man or a woman; it’s about allowing qualified individuals to make a difference for our nation.