Women in combat: Minnesota National Guard helps pave the way

Sgt. Katie Warden
Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Katie Warden said she was excited by the landmark announcement from the Pentagon on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, allowing women to officially take on combat roles.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

The Minnesota National Guard's First Brigade Combat Team is one of nine brigades around the country helping to pilot the Pentagon's new policy lifting the restriction on women in combat.

• Click on slideshow at right

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday lifted the 1994 ban prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. The move opens more than 230,000 new jobs to women nationwide.

More than 16 percent of the Minnesota National Guard is female. Sgt. Katie Warden, a military police officer from Cottage Grove, has been waiting for this announcement.

Warden has served in the Guard for more than seven years. She said the changes allowing women to officially take on combat roles will mean more opportunities for her and other women in the military.

"It's a historic change, but I was really excited about it," she said. "Knowing that there is an opportunity out there later on, then so be it if I happen to want to jump on that train."

At 4 feet 10 inches tall, Warden loves the tough physical work that the military requires. The 28-year-old is training to become a medic. Warden said men and women are equal, even in combat.

Female soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division
In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

"There could have been a lot of stigma, that a female couldn't do what the men could do, but there are some males out there that can't hold the standard, too," she said. "So if there are qualified females that can do the same job and you need to get a mission done, it shouldn't hinder the mission just because they're a female."

The change by the Pentagon means that front-line jobs that have traditionally been off-limits to women are now possible -- including jobs in infantry, armor or field artillery units.

As part of the pilot program, the Minnesota National Guard will assign qualified women to vacant jobs in traditionally male-only units.

Lt. Col. Matt Vatter, chief of Army personnel for the Guard, said having more women in combat will help strengthen the armed forces.

Female Marines Take On Challenges in Afghanistan
Sgt. Sheena Adams, 25, and Lance Cpl. Kristi Baker , 21, US Marines; and Hospital Corpsman Shannon Crowley, 22, US Navy Sailor working with the FET (Female Engagement Team) 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Regimental Combat team II pose at their forward operating base on Nov. 17, 2010 in Musa Qala, Afghanistan.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

"I think it's an awesome opportunity," Vatter said. "It not only gives our female soldiers more things that they can do and more opportunities for success and achievement, but it gives us as commanders a deeper pool of qualified soldiers from which to choose when we are looking at putting people in our formations."

Vatter said he has not heard any grumbling by male soldiers, adding that most men he knows think it's about time women were allowed into combat jobs.

And many women already serve in positions that put them in combat zones.

The policy change allows women to pursue career paths that lead to top leadership positions - positions that historically required a combat background.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Cari Brooks
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Cari Brooks, assigned to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing security force, carries an M249 light machine gun during a perimeter patrol at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia Jan. 30, 2012. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. James Lieth, U.S. Air Force/Released)
Photo for MPR courtesy Staff Sgt. James Lieth, U.S. Air Force

A 20-year-old Marine, Timothy Ryan of West St. Paul, admitted he was initially skeptical that women could perform in combat and thought women could upset unit cohesion. Now, he is more open-minded.

"I've definitely seen women hold their own in training environments," Ryan said, "and I think in the long run if they get accustomed to it and pull their own weight, more power to them."

Ryan did worry that, as the U.S. military continues to draw down troops from overseas, allowing women into combat could take jobs or promotions from qualified men.

Marine Corps, Navy and National Guard veteran Trista Matascastillo applauded the Pentagon's change. Matascastillo, a resident of St. Paul, said any skepticism or discrimination by male service members can be overcome.

"It's long overdue," she said. "It's about time. What it does is it acknowledges all of the women who have served in those roles already and just gives them credit where credit is due."

Minnesota National Guard officials say the pilot phase of allowing women into combat is expected to last through the end of September. After that, personnel changes could go into effect by 2016.

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