Viewpoint: Full Access

Suzanne PedersonWhen I enlisted in the army in 1979 it was only a few years after the Vietnam War—a conflict in which my father participated. I was 10 when he left for Vietnam and I scolded him for leaving the family to engage in a combat mission. I was certain that he would not come back (though he did come back) because my sister and I had watched military personnel delivering the personal effects of the man across the street who was killed in action.

Years later when I enlisted in the army, I thought about our neighbor and my father’s combat experience. My initial reasons for enlisting were personal—I wanted to connect with my father in a special way. But there was more to my enlistment. While I was in high school, the army began to expand opportunities for women soldiers, including defensive weapon training (1975) and integrated male/female basic and occupational training (1977). The new army allowed women to have real jobs and in the army every job mattered—if they were not combat jobs, they were jobs that supported the combat mission and the overall readiness of the forces.

From the moment I took the enlistment oath I mentally and physically prepared myself for the possibility of a combat mission—after all, that was the whole point of my career—being a soldier wasn’t something I did but something I became.

In basic training I represented my military unit on an 11-mile division run. I had to carry our unit flag on a heavy pole that was taller than me, and spin it in a large circle—as I ran in front of the company. Some of the troops fell out of formation, too tired to keep running—including male troops. But I stayed up front proudly spinning that flag, staying in cadence as my booted feet hit the ground, though my arms ached horribly, my legs cramped painfully, and my breathing became labored. My disciplined mind powered through it. I was mentally and physically combat ready.

During one training mission I was chosen with a small number of male and female soldiers to execute a surprise nighttime attack on my peers. After sneaking out of my tent and meeting up with the other chosen aggressors, our small band of male and female warriors silently crept back into the bivouac and armed with blank rounds of ammunition we successfully attacked the whole unit.

When I honorably discharged from the army in 1982 and the reserves in 1986, I was disappointed to have never seen combat. And yet the debate has continued throughout the years as to whether women should be eligible for direct combat roles. I’ve heard the reasons: Rape can happen at the hands of both friendly and enemy forces. Enemy guards can use women prisoners to coerce male prisoners to say or do things they might otherwise not do but for their chivalrous predisposition. On the battlefield that same chivalry might create a distraction and jeopardize the mission and all who are involved. And while I did at times benefit from chivalrous behavior in the army, I don’t think it undermines overall defense readiness.

Another argument is that women and men are not created equal. I admit this might weaken a mission, depending upon battlefield conditions. However, mission readiness does not hinge on the strength of one troop. It is accomplished at the hands of a cohesive unit. And today’s military is a cohesively more inclusive and diverse force.

I went into the military expecting to see combat. I trained for combat and was prepared to die in combat—no less than my father. That is a soldier’s mission and the purpose of our training. In today’s increasingly gender-neutral society, it is myopic to use gender as a disqualifier for combat missions. While I may have lacked the physical strength of male soldiers, many male soldiers lacked my physical fitness and sense of purpose. If women enlist in any military branch, we have enlisted, like our male counterparts, to pursue a patriotic mission, and we should be granted full access to do exactly that.

Suzanne Pederson is a novelist with experience in education and the medical and legal fields, Pederson is the legal affairs coordinator in Saint Mary’s Office of the General Counsel. She enjoys gardening, swimming, boating, her children and grandchildren, and making wine with her husband.