February 13, 2012

Female units in Afghanistan

New rules will allow female soldiers access to more jobs in the military.

Jessica: That is right. The Pentagon has just announced that women will officially be permitted to serve closer to the front lines in battle. But as I saw in Afghanistan, unofficially, women have been doing this risky work for quite some time.

You may not be able to tell what separates Staff Sergeant Nalepka from other Marines. But once the helmet comes off it is clear. Sergeant Kimberly Nalepka and Staff Sergeant Lajuanna Baker are two of the female Marines I met on my trip to Afghanistan. Their mission is to interact with the Afghan women. But in order to do that, they must attach themselves to the Marine infantry, which are the forces on the ground who are composed of all men.

You travel with Marine infantry. They are not used to being with women. What is that like?

“It’s different and unique—a learning experience for both sides. I’ve worked with men but on the infantry side. It gives them a chance to work with females and see what we’re capable of.”

Jessica: Even though Sergeant Baker worked alongside men in the infantry, the Pentagon forbids women from actually serving in the infantry. The new rules don’t change that ban. But now women will be allowed to be permanently assigned to jobs that are closer to combat. For example, serving as a medic with a battalion. However, women are still forbidden from serving in combat.

Some say the new policy doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground. Just ask Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker, who was the commander of a military police platoon in Iraq.

Lt. Dawn Halfaker: I was on the front lines every day for five months. We were operating side-by-side with the infantry. We used a lot of the same weapons. We did a lot of the same missions.

Jessica: Halfaker’s platoon, which had three other women in it, ran over 100 combat missions.

Lt. Halfaker: I had 33 people’s lives in my hands. I never once doubted sending a female on a mission or giving them a certain set of responsibilities.

Jessica: That included loaning her best machine gunner to a special operations unit.

Lt. Halfaker: Every time they would request a specific gunner, and it was always a female to man the .50 caliber.

Jessica: That gunner was Specialist Victoria Rivers.

Victoria Rivers: It was just kind of euphoric, you know. Working side-by-side with some special forces team. It was pretty cool.

Jessica: But during one of Rivers and Halfaker’s patrols, a rocket propelled grenade hit Halfaker’s Humvee.

“There was this big fireball and black smoke billowing out from underneath the truck and the doors of the Humvee. I was on the wrong end of an RPG and had quite a tangle with it. And it came through my shoulder.”

Jessica: Halfaker lost her entire right arm.

Both women are out of the army now but decided to talk so they could send a message about women in the military.

“Because I think people need to realize that it’s not just the men getting hurt. It’s the women too.”

Jessica: Those who are against women serving in combat say the physical demands are too much.

Pentagon officials say they will continue to study the issue.


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