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Women’s military roles slow to evolve

Little interest in front-line action

Personnel policy officials Vee Penrod and Major General Gary Patton spoke at the Pentagon about women in service.

AP/File

Personnel policy officials Vee Penrod and Major General Gary Patton spoke at the Pentagon about women in service.

WASHINGTON — If or when the Pentagon lets women become infantry troops — the country’s front-line warfighters — how many women will want to?

The answer is probably not many.

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Interviews with a dozen female soldiers and Marines showed little interest in the toughest fighting jobs. They believe they would be unable to do them, even as the Defense Department inches toward changing its rules to allow women in direct ground combat jobs.

In fact, the Marines asked women last year to go through its tough infantry officer training to see how they would fare. Only two volunteered and both failed to complete the fall course. None has volunteered for the next course this month. The failure rate for men is roughly 25 percent.

For the record, plenty of men don’t want to be in the infantry either, though technically could be assigned there involuntarily, if needed. That’s rarely known to happen.

‘‘The job I want to do in the military does not include combat arms,’’ Army Sergeant Cherry Sweat said of infantry, armor, and artillery occupations. She installed communications equipment in 2008 in Iraq but doesn’t feel mentally or physically prepared for fighting missions.

‘‘I enjoy supporting the soldiers,’’ said Sweat, stationed in South Carolina. ‘‘The choice to join combat arms should be a personal decision, not a required one.’’

Added Marine Gunnery Sergeant Shanese L. Campbell, who had administrative duties during her service in Iraq: ‘‘I actually love my job.”

She’s an administrative officer at Twentynine Palms in California, serving in a once all-male tank battalion as part of a Marine Corps experiment to study how opening more jobs to women might work.

A West Point graduate working in the Pentagon estimates she has known thousands of women over her 20-year Army career and said there’s no groundswell of interest in combat jobs among female colleagues she knows.

She asked to remain anonymous because in the military’s warrior culture, it’s a sensitive issue to be seen as not wanting to fight, she said. But her observations echoed research of the 1990s, another time of big change in the military, when interviews with more than 900 Army women found that most didn’t want fighting jobs and many felt the issue was being pushed by ‘‘feminists’’ not representing the majority, said RAND Corporation sociologist Laura Miller.

Much has happened for women since then in American society and the military. Foremost in the military is perhaps that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars changed the face of combat and highlighted the need for women to play new roles.

Women already can be assigned to some combat arms jobs such as operating the Patriot missile system or field artillery radar, but offensive front-line fighting jobs will be the hardest nut to crack. Many believe women eventually could be in the infantry, but the Pentagon for years has been moving slowly on that front.

In April 1993, the Pentagon directed the opening of combat aviation occupations and warship assignments to females; the Navy and Air Force responded by opening thousands of jobs.

Neither of those steps put women in the most lethal occupations such as infantry or tank units. Policy barred them not only from specific jobs but also from doing traditional jobs in smaller units closest to the front. That arrangement came apart in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battle lines were jagged and insurgents could be anywhere.

Another issue is the fact that combat service gives troops an advantage for promotions, and the lack of it leaves women disadvantaged in trying to move to the higher ranks.

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