There's about to be a big change to the face of the front lines. Last week, after three years of debate, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered that all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces open all military positions to women. The order will take effect in January—more than a century after women were first allowed to serve as military nurses—allowing women to serve their country in more than 220,000 combat roles that are currently limited to men. That’s translates to about 10 percent of all military positions.
“Last month, I received their recommendations [and] the data, studies, and surveys on which they were based regarding whether any of those remaining positions warrant a continued exemption from being opened to women,” Carter said, adding that not a signle position seemed worthy of an exemption.
In recent years, women have increasingly filled previously all-male jobs—including combat ones—especially in the Army, Air Force, and Navy. For instance, women were part of the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment that flew Navy SEALs into Osama bin Laden's compound. And in August, two female soldiers became the first women to complete the incredibly rigorous Army’s Ranger School. However, they still couldn’t join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment—that is, until now.
So what do women who are currently in the military—including those already serving in combat roles—have to say about decision? We spoke with members of the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Special Operations Command about their experiences in combat zones and what they think about the landmark move.
“I have been in the Air Force for a little over 20 years, and my last three deployments were in joint missions with the Army. I served in Kuwait and Iraq as a convoy commander and then in Afghanistan as an advisor to the Afghan police. These are roles that take us out of the security of base, and we are likely to come in contact with the enemy. While moving cargo to military bases throughout Iraq, my team was under a constant threat of attack and roadside bombings. Working at the police station, bombings did occur in the area. There was a little bit of a scare-factor involved, but I was confident knowing that we were all there as a team. We had the right training, the right equipment, and the right intel. In the end, we all knew that someone out there needed that equipment that we were transporting and we were going to get it to them. It’s important that women know that if they decide to pursue these roles, not only do they have [to have] the physical capabilities to carry them out, lead men and women alike, and make decisions under tough times—but their male counterparts [must] have confidence in them just the same as they have confidence in male members of the military.” —Master sergeant Katherine Goldston, 40
"There was a little bit of a scare-factor involved, but I was confident knowing that we were all there as a team. We had the right training, the right equipment, and the right intel."
“Since being commissioned in 2008, I have been deployed about seven times, including through Operation Enduring Freedom. My primary job as a pilot in Afghanistan and Iraq has been to facilitate aircraft refueling. We fly tankers off base, meet up with aircrafts, and refuel them mid-flight. I’ve instructed fellow pilots and briefed my team on security threats. It’s my job to make sure that they are effectively able to operate these tankers. It’s important that women who aren’t in the military know that women are currently serving on the ground, in the air, and on the water in active combat zones. The leap now is getting women into more combat roles. But honestly, I find that, as a woman in the military, I don’t have to deal with many things that women do in the private sector. There’s no pay differential because I’m a woman. Plus, all military work aside, I’m doing things that I might never have been able to do otherwise. If I weren’t in the Air Force, would I have been able to work as a pilot in the private sector?” —Captain Deborah G., 29
"I find that as a woman in the military, I don’t have to deal with many things that women do in the private sector."
“I have flown for six years in Afghanistan but from a control station in the U.S. It’s really cool. It’s called ‘deployed in place’ and saves boots on the ground while allowing me to back up the people who are on the ground. I assist in raids supports, look out for service members, and have weapons available if I need to use them. I can even talk to members that I’m supporting, scout out areas before their missions, and send them video that they can carry with them while in those areas. Personally, I am very thankful that all combat positions will soon be open to female service members. Now that these women can go to same training units and the roles in which they can support operations will expand, they can be a part of these special forces teams.” —Captain Raquel D., 30
“I have deployed probably 10 times in my career. The deployment itself is pretty uneventful. It's mostly time to work out and get some schoolwork done after the mission is done. You stay focused and work or fly almost every day. The threat, however, is also always there. We must stay vigilant to attacks both in the air and on the ground. It is a demanding job but very rewarding to be on the front line to provide protection to our guys on the ground. Nothing is more rewarding than knowing your guys are coming home because your crew was there providing close air support. It has been the best experience of my life—from my time overseas in Air Force Special Operations Command in Germany to my current position at Hurlburt Field in Florida. Your Air Force family cannot be duplicated, and the bonds and friendships I have made in every phase of my career are timeless. Combat is always combat, but with training and focus on the job, you will get the job done and get home safely. Being in the military has not only challenged me and opened new doors, it has been a wonderful experience, and I would encourage anyone to join that is up for the challenge.” —Master sergeant Kristin, 34
"Personally, I am very thankful that all combat positions will soon be open to female service members."
“I heard about Air Force Special Operations Command from a former supervisor about four years ago, and he recommended it to me because he thought I would be a good asset to them. I've been with this unit ever since that discussion. I knew it would be more challenging and fast-paced than anything I'd done before, but I was ready to give it a shot. My role has always been flying onboard an aircraft, monitoring communications to support ground troops, and providing additional situational awareness for my aircraft and others that may be in the area. Being deployed, for me, has been satisfying, in that the job I do has a direct effect on my crew and the ground operators I support. It's awesome seeing everyone work together, from support personnel to aircrew. We’re able to put our training to the test and know we're doing something that matters. There is a lot of camaraderie down-range; everyone hangs out together in our downtime, and we get to know each other a little better. It can be a lot of fun. With that said, the mission always comes first, and everyone's continually focused on the next objective. My message to women who are considering serving would be to pursue this opportunity. It's very rewarding, challenging, fun, stressful, and crazy, but the experience is worth it. No one in the Air Force is alone; we’re a tight community, and there is always someone to talk to or hang out with. In my career, I have never been looked at as less capable because I’m a woman. The only thing that matters is whether or not I'm qualified for the job or task at hand." —Technical sergeantÃ¢â‚¬â€¹ Caitlin, 31