Local servicewomen weigh in on decision to allow women in combat

kleslie@thetribunenews.comJanuary 25, 2013 

When she heard that women would be allowed to serve on the front lines of battle, former Camp San Luis Obispo garrison commander Lt. Col. Nicole Balliet’s first reaction was, “Well, it’s about time!”

The Atascadero native then had to better understand the announcement and its implications.

“It’s very overwhelming,” she said of the decision. “It’s a huge validation for all the hard work women have done serving in combat for the past several decades.”

The official announcement came after initial reports Wednesday of the Pentagon’s reversal of the 1994 ban on women serving in small front-line combat units.

In his announcement, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also called on the armed forces to come up with a plan to comply by 2016, or to petition for exemptions if they felt specific roles could not be filled by women.

But Balliet said she thinks women will do just fine on the battlefield.

Balliet, who was promoted in November to executive officer to the adjunct general of the National Guard, served two separate tours in Iraq, 2003-04 and 2010-11. During her time there, Balliet saw many situations in which women were involved in combat, despite the ban, she said.

Women have held these sorts of jobs for years,” she said. “We’ve had direct fire. We’ve been under attack. We’ve had vehicles blow up, just the same” as male soldiers.

Though Balliet is not sure whether she would have chosen to be on the frontlines when she entered the service 25 years ago, “it would have been nice to have the opportunity,” she said.

The decision may increase the number of women enlisting in the military, Balliet said.

“I think (an increase) is a very good possibility,” she said. “And that’s not a bad thing.”

Approximately 15 percent of active duty personnel in the military are women, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Of these, women are most represented in the Air Force (19 percent) and Navy (16 percent).

In the past few years, those branches relaxed most of their prohibitions on women serving in combat. Women are allowed to fly fighter jets, fire weapons from ships and serve on submarines.

Pismo Beach resident and former Petty Officer 1st Class Brianne Richardson knew several female fighter pilots during her time with the Navy.

“They were very tough, very dedicated,” she said. “They were able to do what they needed to do.”

For her, the announcement of the ban’s reversal wasn’t a shock, since many females in her branch had already been serving in combat-like situations.

Richardson, who entered the military with the intent to become a nurse, said she would not choose to go to the frontlines. She was also apprehensive about the decision, because women would have to pass the same rigorous physical tests as men to go to the frontlines.

“(Right now) in the military, women don’t have to pass the same tests as men,” she said. “In combat, that goes right out the window because you are then responsible for the safety of everyone in your group. … I support it if women have to pass the same exact test as men.”

In the announcement, Panetta confirmed that women would be required to pass the same physical requirements as men to serve on the frontlines, but there may be some review of these requirements in the months to come to ensure that they are gender-neutral.

The California National Guard office in Sacramento issued an official statement in support shortly after the Pentagon’s announcement, saying the decision would strengthen the military by increasing diversity.

“This decision is more than a move toward equality, but a tactical advancement, as well,” the report stated. “This greater diversity translates directly into mission success, both in combat overseas and during domestic operations here at home.”

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