SARASOTA - With a few simple words, the course of the U.S. military changed Thursday.
“We are eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women,” Defense Decretary Leon Panetta announced.
Lt. Col. Tessa Suplee, an Air Force reservist who lives in Sarasota, says she is just one military woman who has already served in combat situations. It's not a big stretch to let women do the fighting.
“We're in it anyway,” she says. “I've been in a combat zone several times, but not in combat itself,” serving in the first Iraq war in 1990-91 and the war in Afghanistan from 2001-2002.
The distinction serving “in combat zones” but not “in combat” has grown blurry as women serve in military security and support roles that already put them in the line of fire. One hundred forty-six have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the September 2001 terror attacks. Suplee grew up in a Navy family, and knows that the tradition that binds the military can be difficult to change. But that it will adapt.
“In the civilian world, we have female firefighters, we have female police,” she says. “What's the difference?”
To critics who fear damage to unit cohesion if women fight alongside men, Suplee points out that men and women already serve – and nearly live – side-by-side now. When she went to Afghanistan, she and three women had to share a tent with ten men. “And we did fine,” she says. “The girls were on one side, we put blankets up for privacy, and respect”
Some women cannot meet the physical demands for combat. But Suplee says that she has seen others outperform men on physical fitness tests. She doesn't know that many women will clamor for combat duty, but she knows those who can do it. “I've met all kinds of women who are so capable,” she says.
Soon, they will get their shot. Military branches have until May 15 to present plans to the Pentagon on how they will integrate women into their fighting forces.