The Defense Department’s decision to drop the ban excluding women from combat roles has stirred discussion among veterans and those still serving in the armed forces.
She tells host Marco Werman that soldiers on the frontline need skills beyond simple physical strength.
“Leadership is not just about being strong. It’s not about having the biggest biceps,” says Capt. Bedell. “It’s about being able to react under pressure and make decisions when bullets are flying around you.”
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Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman and this is The World, the co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.
[Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaking]: Female service members have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans.
Werman: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made it official this afternoon. Women in the U.S. Military will now be able to serve in many frontline combat roles. Not all, but many. Some exceptions will be decided over the next few months by the Pentagon. US Marine Corps Reserve Capt. Zoe Bedell is one of four plaintiffs who sued to strike down the Pentagon’s policy barring women from some combat roles. She served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. Capt. Bedell says banning women from direct combat roles made it much harder for them to climb the career ladder.
Zoe Bedell: Eighty percent of Generals come from combat arms which are these jobs that are closed. So, you can see that the promotion funnel narrows for women and there are fewer jobs available at the top levels. But additionally, women were supposedly barred from serving in combat, but the fact was they were serving in combat. Anyone in Iraq and Afghanistan these days is in a combat zone and is in danger of being shot at or are being targeted by a roadside bomb.
Werman: I really want to unpack the reality of women being on the ground. What are the scenarios that might cause you anxiety?
Bedell: When I was part of the female engagement team, my marines and I were living with male marines in very small bases and operating with them and patrolling with them every day. So, those things are already happening so there will be a little bit of adjustment for some of the men who haven’t done that yet or who haven’t been in these situations. But the fact is men have already made those adjustments too and they’ve proven that we can work in these environments professionally.
Werman: Give us a couple of examples of things that happened to you in Afghanistan that could have been awkward situations and maybe were or weren’t.
Bedell: Well, there is infinite opportunity for awkwardness anytime you’re living with someone for an extended period of time. One potential challenge is when you’re patrolling and you have to relieve yourself. You’re in the open and it’s hard to do so there can be some difficulty there, but I know women would sort of band together, they’d hold up a tarp and you make things happen. Women have been doing this for the last ten years and are proving that some of these what seem, I guess, to people to be insurmountable obstacles are really not that big of a deal.
Werman: Then there’s the critique of the undeniable physical differences between men and women – upper body strength quite different. What are the differences that you accept between men and women in combat that give men a physical advantage?
Bedell: There are absolutely some women who aren’t going to be able to do this work, just like there are some men who can’t do the work. But right now, the fact is that all men are let in regardless of whether or not they’ve been evaluated to be able to do it and no women are. That’s what’s changing here, is that women will now have a chance to prove that they are one of those people who can do that work and then given the opportunity to do it if they can.
Werman: What is the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do in the field where you really felt challenged?
Bedell: There are a lot of different challenges that you come across all the time. Some of them are those physical challenges where you are just on a long hike and your gear weighs a ton and you’re exhausted, and your feet hurt and those are incredibly challenging. But other challenges are more mental. It’s a stressful situation; you’ve been going without sleep for a long time. Leadership is not just about being strong. It’s not about having the biggest biceps. It’s about being able to react under pressure and make decisions when bullets are flying around you. Those are absolutely qualities that women possess just as much as men do.
Werman: I was going to ask you – do you think women may be in a better position to handle the mental stress than men?
Bedell: I think everyone is equally well qualified here. The military gives you training on this. They help prepare people. There are certainly some advantages women probably have and there are some advantages men probably have. I think, in business settings for example, they’ve seen that the different approaches to problems complement each other and make units stronger. That’s what I’ve seen so far in the military, as well.
Werman: You’ve been out there in the field in Afghanistan. What was the reality for you in that respect?
Bedell: The forces there are doing a lot of what was formerly called ‘hearts and mind’ and winning the hearts of the population. If you come in with a whole group of men in a society where men can’t even interact with the women, it doesn’t look very sincere because you’re trying to help their population but you’re only trying to help 50 percent of them. The other thing is we were able to use some of those cultural stereotypes – use them against them, to some extent, because they think that women are nurturing, and they are healers, and they are there to support and they’re not aggressive. So, when they bring women in, it sort of lowers the tension to some extent. So, we found that coming in as women actually helped us in that environment and would really change the tone of some engagements in a positive way.
Werman: Finally, Capt. Bedell, I have to ask you what you think the lifting of the ban will mean for the frequency of sexual assault in the military. I mean, it’s already out of control by many accounts – over 3,000 cases reported in 2011. What’s gonna happen to that?
Bedell: The policy, as it used to stand, justified the behavior of treating women as second class citizens. If you’re now saying, “No, women are equal; they have a chance to do these jobs; they can compete for these roles” that equality will eventually permeate the organization. That’s not going to be an overnight thing but I think it’s a step in the right direction of the organization seeing women as equal and that the individuals in that organization adopting that policy or that belief as well.
Werman: US Marine Corps Reserve Capt. Zoe Bedell – one of four plaintiffs who challenged the Pentagon’s policy barring women from some combat roles. Capt. Bedell, thank you very much.
Bedell: Thank you for having me.
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