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Local military say its time to include women in combat
University of North Georgia Cadets Christie Winterstaff, left, and Alisa Aiken prepare to mount an M-240B machine gun on a tripod during a recent military science lab at the Dahlonega campus. - photo by Tom Reed

Judy Remeik remembers well the attitudes toward women when she served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s.

"There were some World War II veterans still (in the service) and they did not like women in the military, period," she said.

"Things have just turned around," said Remeik, the lone female in Gainesville’s American Legion Paul E. Bolding Post 7. "We’ve gotten different attitudes about everything."

And it appears that change is going to come for women who want to serve in combat.

Last month, the Department of Defense decided to open up 237,000 positions to women, "as expeditiously as possible," but no later than Jan. 1, 2016, according to a U.S. Army fact sheet supplied by University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus.

The list of formerly closed positions, or military occupational specialties, includes infantry officer, heavy antiarmor weapons infantryman, cannon crewmember, fire support specialist and special forces officer, the document states.

The Army will submit its implementation plans to the defense secretary by May 15.

"Over the next few months, we will continue to analyze gender-neutral standards and open additional occupational specialties to women in a deliberate way that preserves unit readiness, cohesion and morale," according to a joint Statement from Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno.

"Fundamentally, this is about managing talent and posturing the Army and individual soldiers for success."

Or, in the words of Sgt. Maj. Odell Ford at UNG, "It’s the right person for the right job, male or female. Gender has no role."

"That’s probably one of the best things about this policy change," said Col. Todd Wilson, military science professor at UNG. "The Army is always taking a good assessment of itself. This is definitely a good news story."

Wilson and Ford addressed the issue during a visit last week to the campus, which is one of six senior military colleges in the country. The college has 703 members in its Corps of Cadets — 625 men and 78 women.

The Army is "going to take a hard look at all military occupational specialties to see what the quantifiable mental and physical attributes are that soldiers need to have to serve in those (jobs)," said Wilson, who has been active duty for 24 years and has served in Afghanistan.

"I’ve seen in my time soldiers come in as infantrymen who were not cut out for that. They could not meet the challenges and rigors of being an infantryman. ... I think it’s a great thing that we put the best qualified person into the job."

Wilson said that, over the years, female soldiers "have increasingly become more integral in positive contributions to the Army. We can’t do what we’re doing in Afghanistan without our female soldiers."

Ford, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, added: "I’ve seen females driving trucks in convoys ... and some of them would handle themselves pretty well."

Both male and female cadets seem to favor the new policy.

"You have some female cadets who can perform just as well or outperform some males, so my stance on it is, if we have those individuals in this program, I can only imagine that would be replicated in the military," said Michael Carty, commanding officer for the Corps of Cadets.

"If we have people who are talented, if we have quality individuals who can bring more to the organization, I don’t see why this could be a negative thing."

Cadet Capt. Abigail Estrada said she has "never had a problem having to measure up to a male standard."

"As far as I know, the Army just wants to take females and put them in a role that’s going to be suitable to either building camaraderie, esprit de corps or the strength of the Army," she said.

During an outdoor class, men and women cadets received training on how to handle an M-240B machine gun — the Army’s replacement to the classic M-60 — and stabilize them on the ground and on the roof of a Humvee combat vehicle.

"If a woman can hold her own the same as a man can, then I don’t see why they can’t fulfill those combat positions," said Cadet Marissa Cannon, who hopes to earn her second lieutenant commission upon graduation in December.

"At the same time, there are going to be plenty of people who are going to be against it because we’re not used to having women in combat and having them on the front lines," she added. "It’s going to take a long time for people to get used to it."

Remeik, who served stateside during the Vietnam War, is one of those have trouble adjusting to the change.

"When it comes to combat, it’s a man’s world there," she said.

"There are women, I am sure, who would be perfectly fine in that situation," said Remeik, adding that she "was kind of gung-ho" herself and wanted to serve in Vietnam.

"But the idea of carrying a gun and being on the front lines — no, I would not have joined if there was a possibility of me doing that. But that’s me — I’m not a gun person, either. It’s all personality kind of stuff. A lot of women would probably be fine."

Tara Richards of Flowery Branch returned in September from Afghanistan as part of a six-month deployment as part of the 628th Civil Engineer Flight at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta.

"While I am not an outspoken advocate of the cause, I am in favor of giving women the choice to equally compete for ground combat-coded career fields," said Richards, who serves as a Flowery Branch councilwoman.

Married and the mother of two young children, she’s also a captain in the military, awaiting word on a promotion to major.

"Removing a legal barrier does not force women into combat positions," she said. "On the contrary, these positions are extremely competitive and highly sought-after career fields."

She said she believes "there will always be a handful of ground combat positions where women will have a hard time being competitive."

And Richards doesn’t think "entry standards should be lowered or criteria set differently for women, as frontline combat positions demand the best of the best, without exception."

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