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Tim Blagg

Finally, official recognition

For decades, women have seen combat

So, with great fanfare and considerable comment, the Pentagon has finally decided to allow young American women to stand beside their male counterparts and serve in the combat arms.

It’s really no big deal.

Women have been risking their lives in combat ever since this country was created ... the only difference is that we are finally officially recognizing them, and making it possible for them to get combat pay and the promotions that are only possible if you’ve served “at the sharp end” of our military operations.

Some readers have probably heard of “Molly Pitcher,” whose real name was probably Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley ... a courageous woman who brought water to the Patriot artillerymen at the Battle of Monmouth in the Revolutionary War, but then pitched in to help load and fire a cannon after her husband either collapsed from the heat or was wounded. George Washington later made her a sergeant ... a title she used for the rest of her life.

She was a camp follower ... one of the many women who tagged along with their husbands during the wars of the time, caring for the wounded, cooking and generally making themselves useful.

During that and following wars, there were also women who disguised themselves as men and served in the ranks, usually with the knowledge and consent of their peers, who admired their courage and went along with the masquerade.

There are many accounts of these women, motivated by patriotism, gender issues, or a simple desire to get out of the kitchen and traditional female roles and see the world for themselves.

During World War I, the Navy found itself short of yeomen — its name for secretaries — and launched a successful recruiting drive that resulted in more than 11,000 women serving before the war ended. They also served as mechanics, truck drivers, cryptographers, telephone operators and munitions makers.

World War II saw millions of American women serving in industry (Rosie the Riveter was their icon) and also in all the services. Army and Navy nurses were exposed to danger on the front lines in all theaters, and WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flew all types of aircraft, delivering them for service. WASPs were civilians, but 38 died while doing their duty.

In the years since then, women have gradually expanded into almost every job in the services, from military police to submarines. They fly jets, drive trucks, service tanks and analyze bomb damage. They listen for enemy sounds as sonar operators and man radars aboard combat ships.

Now they can join the infantry, artillery and armored divisions.

Is that a problem?

Not really. Women have been flying fighters and fighter-bombers for years, and female helicopter pilots are risking their lives in the front lines in Afghanistan as you read this.

Certainly crewing a tank or feeding shells into a 155 mm howitzer pose no inherent problems.

The big hurdle will be serving in the infantry, and that is simply a matter of meeting the physical standards. The fact is that carrying a huge load of equipment in scorching heat for days on end requires extraordinary strength and stamina ... many men cannot meet the challenge.

Women who wish to take on that challenge will have to work hard to develop the upper body strength and heart and lung power needed.

But I have no doubt that there are thousands of women who can do it and who will revel in the chance to prove themselves.

More power to them.

As long as the physical requirements are not watered down, the sole remaining problem will be the attitude of their comrades.

Most, I would guess, will be doubtful but willing to give their new squadmates a chance to prove themselves. That will take awhile, and will include considerable hazing and rough and tumble testing.

But that’s really no different than what male “FNGs” have to go through when they join a new unit.

It’s tough and sometimes cruel, but the fact is that in combat each person has to be able to depend on the man — or woman — next to them to not panic and protect their back when bullets are flying and people are dying.

That’s the ultimate test ... and the penalty for failure is death.

I’m sure women can pass that test, but only time and experience will cement their new place in U.S. combat ranks.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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