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Women in Combat: Maine Soldiers Prepare for Change

An estimated 2.5 million women have served in the U.S. military, and currently there are more than 200,000 women on active duty. While many have been close to - or on - the front line, women have never officially been sent into the line of fire. That's about to change. In January, the Defense Department announced its plan to lift the ban on women in combat. Many say it's about time. But others are concerned that allowing women to fight side by side with men will create a myriad of problems that will put troops at risk. Susan Kimball recently visited Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont, where members of the Maine National Guard were training, to get a sense of how Mainers in the military are feeling about this momentous change.

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It's a clear, cold spring morning in the mountains of Vermont - a perfect day for weapons training. At the Camp Ethan Allen firing range in Jericho, members of the Maine National Guard Bravo Company 3rd of the 172nd Infantry are training with their counterparts from other northeastern states.

This unit is one of only two National Guard units in Maine that doesn't already include women. Despite overnight temperatures dipping below freezing, these soldiers will spend the weekend sleeping outside. They're up at dawn to begin a rigorous schedule. Training here can be both physically and mentally demanding.

"Sometimes we have role players that will come in and act as civilians, and we have some that act as the hostile enemy," says Maine National Guard Sgt. David Caswell. "And then when the troops come in, it actually gets pretty intense, usually using blank ammunition, pyrotechnics, smoke, things like that."

Caswell says those kinds of practice maneuvers are crucial in preparing troops for war. "The training has to be tough so when you actually have to go out and see the real thing, it needs to be as realistic - if you give yourself some false security on the training, then when you actually get there you are in for a surprise."

Staff Sgt. Nate McCray knows a lot about the rigors of combat. "I just know from personal experience rucking through the mountains of Afghanistan for a week or two weeks, being out there with limited food, limited water, you're malnourished, you've got a heavy load on your back. If you're not physically prepared and the structure of your body isn't prepared to take that, then it can be completely devastating."

The question of whether women have the strength and stamina to cope with conditions like those described by Sgt. McCray - and whether they will be held to the same physical standards as men - is one of the biggest concerns of critics of the Defense Department's decision to allow women in combat.

For Maine National Guardsmen Ryan Albert and Lucas Erickson that's the only issue. "My only concern would be if they can carry the same weight that we can, and if they can go as far as we can, and if they can carry me off the battlefield if no one else can. If they can meet the same physical requirements as we do, then I'm all for it," Albert says.

"My opinion is if they can do the job just as well as any other guy, then by all means they can do it," says Erickson.

Proponents of lifting the ban say it will open long-denied combat leadership positions to women. But some say there are men who may hesitate to follow the orders of a women when the shooting starts.

That's not a problem for Sgt. Sean Dubois, who says that following a leader's command, no matter who that leader is, is ingrained in the military.

But Dubois wonders about what he describes as the natural instinct of men to protect women. "Until it actually happens in combat there's no way of knowing, but instinctually, even just in a bar fight, a lot of men - it's our natural reaction to protect the females around us."

Today, women make up 14 percent of the U.S. military. Sgt. Jonathan Hayslip, who was deployed to Iraq twice, says he's used to seeing women in the danger zone.

"When I was in Iraq the first time we would see women on the gun trucks, they would be on the guns. I already saw, like, kind of, ladies in combat. I mean if they can they did the job - they could get the job done - then that would be fine by me."

Some soldiers say that, in many ways, recent conflicts have leveled the playing field. Women serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan have already been in the line of fire. More than 150 have died and hundreds have been wounded.

"There's many times we had women on convoys with us. Our company, specifically, because we were infantry, did not have women with us but we supported other truck companies, theire truck drivers were women. So they did the same mission that we did. So when you rolled out the gate, guy, girl, it made no difference. It was to make sure everybody gets to their destination safely."

In the end, says Nate McCray, it's all about getting the job done. "I think that there are capable women out there to do it. And if they are the best possible leaders to be put in that position, then I am fairly neutral in my opinion on whether or not they should serve."

David Caswell believes that the bond that's created when men go to war will be extended to women in combat, because that, he says, is what soldiers do.

Susan Kimball: "So your feeling is if there are women within that band of brothers it's not going to make that much difference?

David Caswell: "I don't think when it comes down to it. I mean, I think it's human nature to protect the people that you're with, man or woman. It really comes down to putting the best guys or women in the field with you."

The true test is on the horizon. The Defense Department has requested that each branch of the service has a plan in place to integrate women into combat positions by next month.

The ban on women in combat will be completely lifted by 2016.


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