FORT, EUSTIS VIRGINIA – Only a small fraction of women in the U.S. Army say they’d like to move into one of the newly opening combat jobs, but the few that do claim they want a job that takes them right into the heart of battle, according to preliminary results from a survey of the service’s nearly 170,000 female members.
That survey, and others across the army, publicly disclosed to reporters for the first time, also revealed that soldiers of both genders are nervous about women entering combat jobs but say they are determined to do it fairly. Men are worried about losing their jobs to women; women are worried they will be seen as getting jobs because of their gender and not qualifications. Both are emphatic that the army must not lower standards to accommodate women.
Less than 8 percent of army women who responded to the survey said they wanted a combat job. Of those, an overwhelming number said they’d like to be a Night Stalker — a member of the elite special operations helicopter crews who are perhaps best known for flying the Navy SEALs into Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in 2011.
The level of interest is comparable to that of other countries that have integrated women into combat roles, officials said.
Last year top Pentagon officials signed an order saying women must have the same opportunities as men in combat jobs and the services have been devising updated physical standards, training, education and other programs for thousands of jobs they must open on Jan. 1, 2016. The services must open as many jobs to women as possible, and if they decide to keep some closed, they must explain why.
The army says that about 200,000 of its 1.1 million jobs are either direct combat or combat-related jobs such as field artillery, combat engineers and so on. That is roughly 20 percent of the force, though the direct-combat front-line fighters make up roughly half of that at about 9 percent.
Throughout last year, the army emailed questionnaires to active duty, reserves and Army National Guard members to gauge soldiers’ views on the move to bring women into combat jobs. The results from the survey sent to women showed that just 2,238 — or 7.5 percent — of the 30,000 who responded said they would want one of the infantry, armor, artillery or combat engineer jobs.
Army officials also polled men and women on their concerns about the integration, and asked senior female leaders to say whether they would have chosen combat jobs if they’d been given that chance 10 or 20 years ago. All agreed the physical standards for the jobs should remain the same.
“The men don’t want to lower the standards because they see that as a perceived risk to their team,” David Brinkley, deputy chief of staff for operations at the army’s Training and Doctrine Command, told reporters. “The women don’t want to lower the standards because they want the men to know they’re just as able as they are to do the same task.”
Brinkley’s office at Fort Eustis is filled with charts, graphs and data the army is using to methodically bring women into jobs that have been previously open only to men. The surveys are helping to shape the education and preparation top leaders need to put in place to ensure the integration goes smoothly.
The questionnaires, and the focus groups that followed them, showed that younger men and those who have served with women in the last two years are more open to the integration, while midlevel soldiers — particularly those in units such as infantry and armor that have not yet included women — were more hesitant.
And there were nagging stereotypes. Male soldiers fretted that their unit’s readiness will be degraded because of what they term “women issues,” such as pregnancy and menstrual cycles. Or they worried that women incapable of the physical demands will be brought in anyway.
Officers were concerned about sexual harassment and improper relationships. And the idea of integrated units bothered both military wives and husbands.
Plagued by an increase in reported sexual assaults, the military is putting a much greater emphasis on training, reporting and treatment. But that increased focus, said Brinkley, has prompted some troops to say they are worried to be in the same room together.
The men, said Brinkley, worry that anything they say could ruin their careers.
The solution, said Brinkley and other army leaders, involves education, training and good leadership.
Women across the army have been getting pregnant for years and those units have dealt with it. And, while inappropriate relationships do happen, they are a violation of regulations. So it is up to unit leaders to enforce the Uniform Code of Military Justice in the combat arms units.
Army leaders were unsurprised by the small number of women interested in combat jobs.
“The issue is going to be the propensity of women who want to do some of these things,” army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said in an interview with reporters. “I don’t think it’s going to be as great as people think.”
According to the survey, the vast majority of women who expressed interest in combat jobs were in the lower ranks, aged 27 or younger. Some of the more experienced soldiers said that if they had it to do all over again, they might choose one of the combat arms jobs.
The limited interest also is in line with what other countries, such as Norway, have seen as they integrated women into combat roles, Brinkley said.
But, what surprised even him was what the women named as their preferred combat career.
More than 30 percent of the survey respondents pointed to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
“I went back to the analysts and I said, ‘Is there a glitch in this?’ ” said Brinkley.
But adding women will help the unit fill some spots. The 160th commander has said he is struggling, for example, to get mechanics, but even though there are many in the army, he can’t bring them on because they are women, Brinkley said.
The 160th is a specialized unit used to fly forces fast, low and deep behind enemy lines under cover of darkness. Seventeen women already work in the unit in administrative, intelligence and logistics posts. And there have long been women aviators and air crew in the conventional army, just not on the special operations teams.
Hundreds of pilot and crew positions in the 160th were formally opened to women last June. As of Monday, officials said a number of women had applied and that a handful have received the initial favorable assessment that allows them to begin moving through the process, which includes a rigorous training course.