It's been two years since the military opened all combat positions to women. What's changed--and what hasn't?
As a Marine stationed in Iraq, Corporal Katherine Montalbano didn't shy away from the action. She fired machine guns, dismantled enemy weapons, and searched people at checkpoints.
Yet unlike the male Marines she served alongside back in 2008, Montalbano wasn't considered a member of the infantry. Instead, she was a temporary member of a male combat unit. Her group--called the Lionesses--was an early test of how women would handle serving on the front lines.
Montalbano and other female troops earned praise, but it took nearly another decade for the U.S. military to officially let women serve in combat. In January 2016, the Department of Defense opened all combat positions in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard to female troops.
Since then, many women have signed on for once-forbidden roles. They're driving tanks, throwing grenades, leading troops into battle--and making history. Last spring, a group of women became the first to graduate from U.S. Army infantry training, a milestone two centuries in the making. And in September, the first female Marine completed the Corps's infantry officer program, one of the toughest in the military.
The progress doesn't surprise Montalbano.
"I have seen women knock out pull-ups like it was nothing and take down a male during hands-on training," she says. "We are all trained the same."
Still, the gender integration of the military is far from complete. Though hundreds of women have earned combat spots, they still make up just a small fraction of U.S. combat troops. Some elite military groups, such as the Navy SEALs, haven't yet had a woman qualify. And some people continue to argue that women have no place on the battlefield at all.
A Long History of Service
Women have served in the armed forces since the nation's founding (see timeline, p. 12). They were nurses, cooks, and spies during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), and some women even disguised themselves as men to fight during the Civil War (1861-65). Their roles in the military have continued to evolve since then.
Today more than 210,000 women serve in the U.S. armed forces. They make up more than 16 percent of active-duty troops.
Yet progress for female troops has been slow. Critics, including some top military officials, fought hard for years against allowing women in combat roles. They argued that women would weaken combat units. Others feared that having women on the front lines would distract male soldiers, which could be deadly in battle.
But keeping female troops out of the line of fire became more difficult as modern warfare evolved--especially during the war in Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, which have lacked traditional front lines; firefights can happen anywhere.
As a result, thousands of U.S. servicewomen in Afghanistan and Iraq dodged bullets and roadside bombs for years before they were officially allowed in combat. Nearly 14,000 of them earned military honors for engaging with the enemy. For many Americans, hearing of those female troops' heroics was a turning point.
Over time, "the issue of women in Combat ... was no longer a question," Ash Carter, then the U.S. secretary of defense, said in 2016. "Women had seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting, and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice alongside their fellow comrades in arms," he added.
'Just Like Everybody Else'
According to the Congressional Research Service, at least 167 women have been killed in action since 2001. More than 1,000 have been injured.
When the Department of Defense opened combat roles to women, military leaders emphasized that positions would be filled based on ability, not gender. The 18 women who became the first to complete Army infantry training in May 2017 met the same physical requirements as their male counterparts. They hurled grenades 100 feet, marched a dozen miles at a time shouldering heavy packs, and single-handedly dragged a 268-pound dummy across a battlefield.
"They carry what everyone else carries. They walk the same amount of mileage. They push, they pull, they sweat, they bleed just like everybody else," Sergeant 1st Class Joseph Sapp, a drill sergeant, told the Army Times about his female infantry recruits.
The first female Marine infantry officer also completed the same grueling 13-week course as male hopefuls. "The significance of her achievement cannot be overstated," wrote two retired Marines.
But not every woman who tries for a direct combat position succeeds, of course. In the first co-ed Army infantry boot camp, 44 percent of the women who started ended up dropping out. For men, the dropout rate was 20 percent.
The disparity is more obvious in special forces training, which is more demanding. In 2015,19 women were the first to attempt...