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Excluding Women from Combat Is Just Plain Wrong: A Navy Captain’s Story

Our guest blogger is a retired Navy captain Dwayne Oslund, USN (Ret.), partnering with the ACLU to advocate for women openly serving in combat roles.

From the ACLU: On January 24, 2013, we saw a great victory for U.S. servicewomen when the Department of Defense announced it was ending the ban on women serving in combat units and occupational specialties. As the Pentagon and the armed services begin implementing the change in policy, there are many issues that must be resolved, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the process. In an ongoing blog series, we will bring you voices of military experts, veterans, and other stakeholders who will discuss these issues and the need to fully integrate women in the armed forces.

During my 25-year career as a Navy officer and helicopter pilot, I was fortunate to witness firsthand the genuine skills and capabilities of U.S. servicewomen. But at the same time, these brave women were limited in their opportunities by arbitrary rules that had nothing to do with their abilities and, if anything, hurt the readiness of our military. I also saw women rise to the occasion when the policies that excluded them from certain positions yielded to the realities of modern warfare and the challenges of maintaining an effective fighting force.

I first had the chance to observe women break new ground in the military when I was stationed with the Navy’s first female helicopter pilot (in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit she happens to be my wife of 35 years).

When Joellen Drag first reported to her helicopter squadron in 1974, she was not allowed to hover over the fantail or flight deck of a Navy seagoing ship. She had the same training and abilities as her male counterparts, but she did not have the same opportunities to develop advanced qualifications and experience needed to compete for higher rank. But the law didn’t just hurt Joellen’s career—it also prevented our Navy from utilizing a skilled pilot.

To fight this unfair policy, Joellen joined a lawsuit challenging the federal law that stood in the way of her dream of following the footsteps of her father who was a career naval officer. Fortunately, the judge declared the law unconstitutional in 1978, and Joellen went on to have a successful career in the Navy, eventually retiring as a captain.

The legal battle was won. But the war was not.  Fast-forward to 1991 and the first Gulf War. Women were everywhere in theater, doing just about everything they had been trained to do. I don’t recall many questions about whether the law allowed them to be there, but I did know that women were essential to our preparation for combat operations. And I’m certain no commanding officer would want to lose a fully-qualified crew member just because she was, well, a she.

With the buildup essentially complete and Saddam Hussein not withdrawing from Kuwait, suddenly the lights went out in Bagdad. We were in a combat situation, complete with scud missiles fired at coalition forces and planes shot down. And again, no one questioned the presence of women doing what they were trained to do…or so I thought.

I was assigned to the staff of the Navy’s logistics support force in Bahrain where I oversaw the operations of 32 shore-based planes and helicopters. One morning the officer-in-charge of one of the helicopter detachments appeared at my office door along with one of the female pilots assigned to the unit. They asked to speak with me, then stepped into my office and closed the door.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “This must not be good.”

Turns out the night before, the female pilot was diverted from a routine ship resupply mission and ordered to fly to an oil platform off Kuwait City to pick up Iraqi soldiers who had been captured. Apparently word got back to the Wing Commander in Virginia that a female crewmember had flown into the combat zone, which was not permitted.

I assured the pilot she had done the right thing. As she departed my office, I also reminded the pilot to log combat flight time on her flight reports. My small actions may not have influenced what is the norm today, but it meant a lot to the women pilots for whom I felt a responsibility to treat with fairness and equality. After I passed this situation along to my admiral, I never heard another word. Rules aren’t necessarily made to be broken, but this one was out of date.

In large part because of the Desert Shield/Desert Storm experiences, most restrictions on women serving on combatant vessels and aircraft were lifted in 1994, the same year the direct ground combat exclusion policy was put in place. Since then we’ve become very aware of what our servicewomen have done in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite this policy. They’ve been decorated for heroism and have died for their country.

And so Joellen and I were elated when we learned that the Pentagon was finally rescinding the policy, knowing full-well what that meant to the thousands of women who are currently serving our country or who aspire to do so. From our own experience, we know that women have the ability to serve in combat roles and, in doing so, have made important contributions to our military readiness and capabilities. That’s why, when the Pentagon works through the details in implementing the change in policy, it should open all occupations and units to women, allowing them to compete and serve in positions for which they are qualified and affording them opportunities to be promoted to the highest levels of leadership.

It’s time to do away with the brass ceiling once and for all.

Captain Dwayne Oslund, USN (Ret.) served 25 years in the U.S. Navy. He was a helicopter pilot who commanded a primary training squadron in Corpus Christi, TX, with 90 male and female instructor pilots from a wide range of naval aviation communities. During that tour, his squadron trained over 250 men and women from the Navy and Marine Corps. He holds a Master of Science degree in Management with a specialty in Manpower, Personnel and Training Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, and also served as the Navy’s Officer Promotion Planner on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. Shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, CAPT Oslund was among the first Navy personnel to forward deploy to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when he led a small contingent to standup a Navy liaison element to US Central Command. He was subsequently assigned to the Navy logistics support force staff in Bahrain. 

17 thoughts on Excluding Women from Combat Is Just Plain Wrong: A Navy Captain’s Story

  1. I agree with Captain Oslund and his description of events. After all Joan of Arc and other women of history were involved in combat. Also since we’ve had an all volunteer military for quite some time now, I see no reason for women who volunteer for combat billets to be denied.

  2. It’s time to do away with the brass ceiling once and for all.

    My husband (USN aviation 1965-1969) agrees: it’s about the best and the brightest.

    Thank you, Captain Oslund!

  3. I appreciate anyone’s heroic sacrifice, but I also oppose war in any of its many incarnations for religious reasons. But neither do I want to be dismissive of anyone’s toil and bravery. Mostly, I just want the end of all wars and the end of the many byproducts of armed conflict.

    There was a time when people criticized the inherent right of women to be ministers.

    A mere 300 years ago, preaching by women was considered a novelty. A quote of the time said: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” I think this same quote could be applied to criticisms of servicewomen even today in a slightly different context.

    1. @comrade kevin.Most wars have little to do with religion.They are about control of economic resources.

  4. I dislike the way that the inclusion of women in combat is championed as a feminist priority. The US military is a tool used to control other countries, usually with detrimental effects on women. Feminism means liberating all women, not just American women.

    1. That logics breaks pretty fast. The US corporate system is built on the exploitation of foreign labor and world pollution. Should we therefore not call for equal pay and consideration for women in the workforce?

      Women currently experience sexual assault in the military at terrifying rates. Should we not work against this because they are part of the US military? Is sexism excusable or to be ignored if it takes place in a system that perpetuates oppression?

      Because I can do this to your statement:
      “I dislike the way that the inclusion of women in business/society/government is championed as a feminist priority. The US business/society/government is a tool used to control other countries, usually with detrimental effects on women.”

      1. No A4, we need to jump straight from where we are to a worldwide pacifist anarcho-communist utopia without passing through any incremental steps or phases of development because anything less than complete and utter overnight revolution is a defeat. We also need to conflate neutral tools and institutions with the guidance and leadership that dictates how and why they are used. For example, because policing in the US tends to disproportionately target POC we shouldn’t think that more diverse representation in police departments is a goal worth pursuing. Dissolve them all and let the revolution begin!

        (This is sarcasm)

        1. Sarcasm is a tool used to control other commenters, usually with detrimental effects on women.

        2. Thank you for this, Willard. The reminder that getting where we need to be takes time (and stages) was much-needed this morning.

    2. Well, that didn’t take long. I sometimes wonder whether the people who make these sorts of comments have any connection to people actually serving in the military. Both of my parents (mother and father) served (my father enlisted in the Army and was in the reserves for a decade, my mother joined the National Guard). I have many friends who have served, or are serving. People’s reasons for joining up are diverse, and many of those reasons intersect with “respectable” social justice concerns like a desire to escape out of poverty, or to get a better education, or to gain citizenship. I have met a few people who have joined the military out of a patriotic fervor, or out of a desire to kill as many people as possible, but they are not the rule.

      In fact, my mother joined the national guard shortly after her wedding so that she could become a US citizen (she is white and Australian by birth). While in the Guard in the mid-80s, she faced constant sexual harassment and threat of sexual assault. Her commanding officer referred to female Guard members as the “traveling bordello.”

      While you are free to criticize people for choosing to try to better themselves by joining the military, an institution which is far from morally neutral, I will ask that you not do so by pretending that American women no longer face sexist oppression when they join the military. (Or non-American women, for that matter; after all, my mother was not a citizen when she joined up).

      1. I have a Whole Lot of Thoughts about how leftists treat relatively unprivileged people who join the American military under the bus, and I’m taking those thoughts to the Spillover Thread.

  5. the head of a giraffe against a bright blue sky: its mouth is pursed sideways



  6. [Off topic caveat about my personal opposition to war, militarism]

    If nothing else, I hope that the official recognition of women in combat roles will make it easier for them to receive treatment for PTSD and related trauma. I know that in the recent past women have been denied mental health care coverage for PTSD on the grounds that they weren’t “officially” in a combat role, which is reprehensible.

  7. This is how it’s always been with the US Military. Official integration comes after years, sometimes decades, of people doing the same work as their peers without the same recognition. When the policies finally get changed, people wring their hands about what integration will do to the “readiness” of the force, or to morale, or what have you, despite the fact that everyone who’s served for any length of time already knows at least someone in the discriminated-against class who’s been doing this same work already.

    Change comes, no one dies.

    Here’s an example: Desegregation of the Armed Forces

    In the Battle of the Bulge, British and U.S. troops were being badly mauled by a ferocious, last-ditch counteroffensive by Hitler’s army. The American army, desperate for replacements, sent out a call to black service divisions, asking them to volunteer as infantrymen. They would fight side by side with white troops on the front lines. It was a matter of the “necessity being the mother of integration.” The response to the call was overwhelming. As Doris Kearns Goodwin states in No Ordinary Time, “Negro soldiers recognized that they were being presented with an opportunity to affirm their competence and courage on the battlefield and to prove that whites and blacks could work together.”2 By the time the German offensive had been stopped, prejudices had broken down among the racially mixed units. When white troops had first heard about the plan for integrated troops, 64 percent admitted they were skeptical; however, after fighting with black soldiers, 77 percent had said their attitude toward integration was “highly favorable.” Furthermore, blacks as combat soldiers had “fared brilliantly.”3 When the victory was won, blacks were returned to their service units. But, as Goodwin writes, “The excellent performance of the integrated platoons demonstrated once again the waste and impracticality of segregation.”

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