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Women in Combat

Dolores Latham27-year-old Dolores Latham works in banking in downtown Chicago. To passersby, she might seem like just one more professional working in the Loop. But most would never guess that she's also an Army veteran and capable warrior. As Staff Sergeant Latham, she was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 where she was part of a security force and quick response team.

“I was the only female in my platoon, it was all males. Typically in that type of role they would want all males but they said I was capable of handling it, so I was allowed to,” said Latham.

Staff Sergeant Latham's official job was to be part of a transportation unit mostly as a driver.

“What I normally do in the military--I didn’t even do that out there. In this case I was a machine gunner/TC-which is a truck commander-/driver, so we were in armored up Humvees and pretty much provided support if need be for any type of combat situation,” explained Latham.

Latham was neither violating regulations nor entering uncharted waters as a combat ready female. Despite an official ban, many US military women have been seeing combat for years at times fighting alongside men, getting wounded and even killed in battle.  Saying it was time to recognize that reality, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta last month lifted the ban.

“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I believe that we must open up service opportunities for women as fully as possible,” stated Panetta.

Tammy DuckworthArmy veteran and recently inaugurated Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth knows full well about women in combat. In 2004 the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in Iraq came under fire by insurgents. She was severely wounded and had both her legs amputated. Throughout the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan women have been able to fight alongside men in most cases because of loopholes in the military policy.

“The problem is that the regulation and policy has been women can’t be infantry or in armor. They can’t become tank commanders for example or ground infantry. Yet, on the ground we are attaching but not assigning women to some of these infantry units so they can provide the needed missions,” said Duckworth.

“For example, doing house-to-house searches -- searching for insurgents -- they needed to bring a woman along in Iraq so that women would be there to search the female civilians for hidden weapons and the like. Men could not do that because of the cultural norms,” she continued.

Weston PolaskiBut some military veterans like Weston Polaski have reservations about the lifting of the ban. Polaski currently works in the Veterans Admissions and Outreach Office at Northeastern Illinois University. But in 2007 he was in the Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq where his mission was to search for weapons and insurgents. He says no matter how much training young male soldiers receive, placing women alongside them may pose a problem.

“In all honesty you’re getting guys, a lot of times, who are coming straight out of high school, they’re 18 years old. They haven’t been exposed to a professional environment like this…they’re still kids. And you get them into a situation like this…now I’m not saying anything along the lines of sexual assault, but they’re going to be distracted and the reality of that is there,” said Polaski.

And then there's the so-called cohesion that male military units say they need to allow them to be warriors.

There is dialogue amongst boys and men that is best left not repeated in front of civilians or probably in front of women, but it’s a dialogue that helps through the situation in its entirety of getting to that end result of being able to kill somebody,” explained Polaski.

But Captain Dustin Cammack doesn't see it the same way. Cammack is currently the Public Affairs Officer for the Illinois Army National Guard. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2009.

I’ve served for 17 years. And I’ve been around a litany of different types of people, personalities, races, genders. And what I can say about being in the military is when you have a job to do, when you have a mission, you get it done. I’ve never had an experience with a male or a female, if they have the ability to do the job, and they couldn’t get it done. I don’t see that this is going to be any kind of difficult transition for the military at all,” said Cammack.

But even some female veterans have concerns about the lifting of the ban. Cynthia Rathunde also works at Northeastern Illinois University as Veterans Services Coordinator. Her military service during the first Gulf War kept her on the home front but she says the psychological differences between men and women may be the most perilous part of coed warriors.

Photo courtesy of Weston Polaski

Women are led to a more nurturing nature, where men are led more to a protective nature. And the studies that have been done have indicated that when you have a culture like that, a male can-- a male doesn’t want to leave a fallen comrade, whether he is hurt or he’s been lost, but they do and can eventually move on from that,” said Rathunde.

“And a lot of the studies show that because we teach our children to be a little more protective, male vs. female, that when a woman has fallen next to him they can’t leave, and the psychological damage is done. They put themselves at risk if they can’t leave, or if they debate it, if they think about it, they put their whole unit at risk, and when you’re at combat you have to be able to make life or death split decisions,” explained Rathunde.

But Congresswoman Duckworth says it all boils down to leveling the playing field.

I think that you set the standards based on the job performance. Whatever you need to be able to do physically to do the job and mentally to do the job, set those standards, and whoever meets those standards should be able to do the job,” said Duckworth.

Although the Pentagon wants the change in policy to be implemented as soon as possible it has given each branch of the military until January of 2016 to decide how best to put it into effect.