by Moira Fagan
For Guidance on Women in Combat Positions, Look to the U.S. Coast Guard
In the wake of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s 2015 decision to open all combat positions to women, the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy have grappled with the practical realities of following this order. Vocal concerns from military personnel and senior leaders have centered on how integrating women could compromise standards and impact force readiness.
These discussions have overlooked a branch of the Armed Forces where women have long had access to all positions: the United States Coast Guard. It is the smallest service, and the only branch of the military that operates as a function of the Department of Homeland Security, rather than the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard strives to protect U.S. maritime interests, with missions covering drug interdiction, environmental protection, immigration law enforcement, and search and rescue, among several others.
The Coast Guard also offers an established example of what mixed-gender combat units are just beginning to look like. Within its search and rescue mission are the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmers, who typically conduct operations from helicopters in an unforgiving environment, in unrelentingly physical conditions: the open ocean in heavy seas. Rescue swimmers engage in a physically intense job, with the lives of those aboard vessels in distress, as well as the helicopter crew, at stake. This work includes many of the same variables found on the front lines of combat: a high level of risk, the need for physical strength, and the ability to think quickly and adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances.
The screening process to become a rescue swimmer is gender-blind and rigorous, with high dropout rates for men and women at the Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. In a recent class where 24 students entered the program, only three graduated. These 10 weeks of training focus on a rescue swimmer’s strength and endurance while in heavy seas. Being able to swim through severe weather is only one portion of the requirements for this position: upon completion of program, rescue swimmers become certified Emergency Medical Technicians who can provide basic life support to individuals rescued in a maritime environment.
Once certified, a rescue swimmer serves as one member of the 4-person crew, which includes two pilots and a flight mechanic. Today, there are four female rescue swimmers (out of roughly 360) currently serving in the Coast Guard. This number is certainly an underrepresentation in an already-small service, yet the Coast Guard has gained four specialists in a critical program, who may not have been given an opportunity otherwise. The same is likely true of the other services’ occupational specialties.
Gender-blind training and selection standards addresses many of the concerns voiced by military personnel who are worried about potential security compromises, and gender neutral physical standards are already in place in the Army and Marine Corps. The result of these policies will be a near-guaranteed underrepresentation of women in the officer and enlisted ranks. Underrepresentation in the name of preserving current standards is acceptable, so long as women are given the opportunity to serve in all positions, as we are starting to see across the services. Just last month, the first female infantry Marines joined the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines at Camp Lejeune.
President Trump’s leadership choices for the Department of Defense do not appear to indicate that significant changes concerning women in combat are forthcoming. Retired Marine General James Mattis, now confirmed as the Secretary of Defense, did not voice opposition to Secretary Carter’s decision in his confirmation hearing. Former Congresswoman and Secretary of the Air Force nominee Heather Wilson has long advocated for women to serve in combat support positions. Her opinions on women in direct combat roles are less clear.
The military’s primary mission is to deter war and protect the security of the United States. To carry out this mission, the Armed Forces must select qualified volunteers to serve, allowing the military to operate effectively. This task is impossible if half the population is disqualified from being considered for combat positions. As the first women begin to join previously all-male units, the Coast Guard has set the example that women can succeed in physically intense and high-risk positions. The other branches of the Armed Services are sure to follow suit.