Monday January 28, 2013

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Reaction among local veterans to the recent news that the Pentagon will lift its ban on women serving in direct combat roles was mixed, reflecting sentiments across the nation.

Queried Friday while he tended bar at American Legion Post 13 on Northside Drive, Dick Dame said if women met the qualifications "they ought to be able to fight and stick their necks out too."

"In my opinion it's long overdue," said Dame, who served in the Marines between 1956-58.

"If they want to be there, they should be there," agreed Steve Greenslet, an Army veteran who served between 1966-69. Playing pool at the legion, Record said as long as women passed the necessary fitness tests "they belong there just as much as anyone else."

Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey signed an order eliminating limits from 1994 that prohibited women from being assigned to many front-line artillery, infantry, armor, and special operations jobs in the services. The order came with the acknowledgement that women have fought and died for their country for decades: They comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel today. More than 280,000 have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan or neighboring nations over the past decade. Of the more than 6,600 service members killed in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 152 have been women -- about 2 percent.

The change could open more than 230,000 combat positions previously off-limits, although military service chiefs have until May 15 to develop plans and until January 2016 to argue against the change for some roles. Past opposition has centered around questions of strength and stamina, and whether their presence might impact unit cohesion.

Mike, a volunteer at the Veterans Outreach and Family Resource Center at the Vermont Veteran's Home, acknowledged some gender issues that arose during his time in the service as a medical field agent, which spanned 14 years in the Marines, Army National Guard, and Army Reserves (in that order) beginning during the Vietnam era. "If you're in the field, no one (cares) if you're a woman."

"You're just a name and a rank," he said on Friday. Man or woman, "(you) should be expected to perform (the job at hand)."

Still, there can be contention with women in the service. Aside from the real potential for sexual harassment, Mike recounted a situation in the reserves where he once cracked a joke to a friend seated beside him. An outranking woman officer in front of the pair misconstrued the laughter. "I'm ordering you to tell me what you said," Mike said she commanded, thinking the joke was on her. (It was not.)

But while trained separately at Parris Island boot camp, "I don't think they were cut much slack as women," he said.

"The bottom line is, if you're in a unit, you better pull your weight."

In its March 2011 issue, VFW magazine chronicles the service of women stationed in war zones throughout U.S. history. During World War II, some 54,700 women served overseas -- the largest-ever deployment to that point -- in nursing and administrative capacities. Their service continued through Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War. Some 40,782 were deployed in the latter conflict.

According to a 2006 book, "Women at War," there were 100 female Purple Heart recipients in World War II; three in Korea; 10 in Vietnam; and six in Persian Gulf. More than 800 women have been wounded in the latest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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