Combat already a reality for women in service

Combat already a reality for women in service
Veteran Elisa Wyatt stands in a gunner's turret during training. Although she was an IT specialist in Afghanistan, she found herself in harm's way. Under a recently announced Pentagon plan, women would be allowed to apply for more combat roles. Courtesy photo

COAST CITIES — On paper, retired Petty Officer 3rd Class Elisa Wyatt’s job as an IT specialist in Afghanistan shielded her from battle. But in reality, she was often in harm’s way. 

She carried an M4 assault rifle and handgun when moving from base to base to help with network operations. During these trips, she was warned of an increased threat of being ambushed, kidnapped or put into other dangerous situations. In fact, two in her communications team were killed after they went “outside the wire.”

Rockets struck her base periodically. On one occasion, she was close enough to hear one whizz by. Luckily, she was unscathed.

“It doesn’t matter if people like it or not; combat is a reality for women,” Wyatt said. “The enemy isn’t going to scan a convoy and differentiate between genders.”

Under a recently announced Pentagon plan, women would be able to apply for combat jobs previously only available to men. The plan drew a rebuke from critics, who question whether women possess the agility and strength to permanently serve in direct combat situations. In response, some argue that women are already serving in battle positions, and that they deserve recognition for doing so.

Since 1994, women have technically been prohibited from serving in direct combat roles on the ground. But many women serving in Iraq found themselves caught in ambushes or in unexpected firefights — a common occurrence because of frontlines being much less defined in modern warfare For her part, Wyatt didn’t shoot at combatants, though she was trained to. But she did come in contact with women who performed heroic acts in the heat of battle.

Physically speaking, Wyatt believes she was just as qualified as the men in her unit.

“I was one of the best shots in my class,” said Wyatt, adding that she schooled some men in basketball and occasionally led runs in her unit.

Most importantly, in Wyatt’s mind, the Pentagon’s plan will give credit where credit’s due, considering that women are already a part of combat situations.

“It (the combat ban) was causing some women coming back not to get credit or medals or compensation,” Wyatt said. “Officially, we were never allowed to be in combat, even though some of us really were.”

She added that she was put in harm’s way once going outside the wire, raising the likelihood of a combat situation.

Wyatt, a San Diego resident who served for almost 10 years, retired from the Navy last year with brain and spinal injuries following an accident in a simulator designed to prepare troops on how to escape Humvee rollovers.

She noted that the simulator subsequently injured others, including paralyzing a man from the waist down.

With ranks totaling more than 200,000, women make up 15 percent of the military. For the first time, women could be permanently assigned to combat-heavy field and armory battalions, as well as platoons and squads.

By 2016, more than 230,000 previously unavailable combat roles will be open to women in the Army and Marines.

“Female service members have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight, and yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans,” said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta last week during the announcement.

Under the plan, the military will set gender-neutral standards for combat roles. In his speech, Panetta said the standards would not be weakened to accommodate women or anyone else.

“Let me be clear, I’m not reducing the qualifications for the job, if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation,” Panetta said.

Some groups maintain the military’s plan will gradually degrade job standards.

“The military shouldn’t engage in social experiments,” said Elaine Donnelly, founder of the Center for Military Readiness. “Women don’t have an equal opportunity to survive.”

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who represents San Diego and served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, said in a statement that the plan was “rushed.”

“What needs to be explained is how this decision, when all is said and done, increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes,” Hunter said.

152 women have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to U.S. Department of Defense statistics. Those deaths haven’t quelled the support for allowing women to apply for combat roles.

According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Americans support women serving in ground units that engage in close combat.

Tara Jones, a Navy veteran and president of the San Diego-based National Military Women Veterans Association of America, counts herself among the backers of women serving in all positions. She said some female mechanics and drivers have proven themselves when temporarily “attached” to direct combat situations, and thus deserve the chance to “aspire to any roles they want.”

“The door was opened for them recently, that’s for sure,” Jones said.

Also, she said the decision would help give more weight to issues unique to women veterans.

“Women have issues that sometimes weren’t recognized,” Jones said, citing homeless female veterans with children as one example.

Congress will review the Pentagon’s plan in the coming months.

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  1. Elisa Wyatt says:

    Jamie’s “cheap shot” comments just go to show how women who do SPEAK UP can feel targeted and harassed EVEN AFTER THEY LEAVE THE SERVICE!

    You say you knew OF me, yet it is obvious that you did not and do not really KNOW ME.

    You say you knew of my circumstances, but did you really? Did you ever approach me directly? Did you ever ask me? Did you ever listen to me tell you the entirety of my story with an open heart and an open mind?

    You were not there when I was injured. You were not even aware that I had been sexually assaulted, so it seems that you were more informed by the gossip and lies and propaganda of the military rumor mill, along with a very narrow-minded vision of what you thought you saw, than by what was actually going on.

    That is what makes “invisible injuries” so difficult. I am still relatively young, and I still have all my limbs, so I do not “appear” to be injured, and it becomes easy to point the finger at me and claim I did not make the requisite sacrifices to warrant being compensated for my injuries.

    I assure you: I served honorably and courageously and stayed committed to serving my country to the best of my ability to the very end, even when “the best of my ability” changed because of my injuries, and I required a live-in caregiver to assist me with getting through the rest of my time on Active Duty.

    As a woman placed “unofficially” in a combat situation, I had to work harder than my counterparts to earn even the baseline level of respect I deserved, ESPECIALLY after being injured and having my injuries affect my performance!

    You cannot know how much pain and suffering and betrayal and stress and loss it took to reduce me to what you may have thought you witnessed.

    I did not feel like I had completely left the “war zone” even after I got back to the states because of people within the system who were choosing to perpetuate the MST (Military Sexual Trauma) PROBLEM by harassing me, seeking to discredit me at every turn, downplaying and denying what I went through, and doing everything they could to railroad me out of the military with as few benefits as possible.

    I am not the problem. How women(and men, for that matter) are criminally mistreated for reporting a crime while their perpetrators are protected and promoted is a bigger problem than my performance suffering AFTER I had COMPLEX PTSD from being exposed to COMBAT AND SEXUAL trauma as well as brain and spinal cord injuries while being under-diagnosed and over-medicated so as to cover up the truth about the true extent of what had happened to me.

    The system may be flawed, but I still love my country and am thankful to the military for giving me the opportunity to serve! I went to the war zone willingly, even after hearing in combat training that I would be “at a high risk for isolation, capture, torture, and being shot at and blown up.” I did not run away, but rather, swallowed hard, paid close attention, and forged ahead with my fellow comrades.

    I did not mean to put myself on a pedestal just by stating the facts. I can not UNDO what I experienced just as you can not DENY what I experienced. It is still hard for me to forget how I ran for my life to the nearest bunker on base every time the explosions started or how every time I ventured off base, I had to face the possibility that I might be captured or killed. It is still hard for me to not be tense around everyone I come into contact with, whether I know them well or not. Calling me a liar does not make me one, and your attempts to discredit me can not cover up or completely conceal the truth.

    You speak of the symptoms of my injuries yet claim I was lying about being injured. You speak of the challenges I faced, yet you give me no credit for staying in the game and striving to overcome them. You reference the emotional walls I put up to protect my heart from years of being overly stressed as well as persecuted and abused by those in the system who were choosing to be part of the problem, and yet you do not recognize them as such.

    The fact that I got an honorable discharge and any benefits in light of what I had to endure for nearly three years after reporting the criminal actions of my Army supervisor — a sexual predator who worked directly for a high ranking officer — is a miracle and a testament to the fact that I am telling the truth, and I refuse to give up or give in despite how much pressure is placed on me.

    If you knew me personally, you would have pointed out how I was before this deployment and how I have changed both for the better and for the worse.

    If you knew me professionally — PRE-INJURY, when I was still working in my area of expertise — you would know that I had a keen mind, a joyful spirit, an excellent attitude, a strong work ethic, an insatiable eagerness to learn, and that while I may not have been perfect, I was very trainable and open to feedback, advice, and instruction.

    If you knew me at all, you would know that I am not a flat, one-dimensional person with no redeeming qualities.

    All I can do is stand in my truth, speak up for myself, and report what I experienced. I refuse to be shamed into silence. If that makes me belligerent, then it just goes to show how hard I had to fight to have my voice heard.

    I still believe that asking a high-ranking officer what they are personally doing about the MST PROBLEM in the military is more of an opportunity for them to prove how they are accountable than an act of disrespect on my part. The fact that I had to stand up for myself to high-ranking officers just goes to show how high the problem goes!

    I will always be thankful for my family and friends and people like Tara and organizations like the National Women Veterans Association of America who choose to be part of the SOLUTION rather than the problem. You showed me that I am not alone, and that I do deserve to fight for what I know to be right, even if with everyone who doubted me and treated me with disdain.

    Honey, thank you for acknowledging my service. I wish you the best of luck in your future military goals. You seem like someone who is open to seeing things honestly and objectively while considering all the possibilities involved. Please promise me you will choose to be part of the solution even when it is not convenient or popular.

    Jamie, your apology is noted. Thank you.

    • Honey says:

      Ms Wyatt – I strive to be objective though I’m sure there may be times when I am not. :). Good luck to you as well.

      • Elisa Wyatt says:

        Thanks! Even having the desire to be objective is a great start in my book. It is all to easy to rattle off a negative opinion and be a “hater” without knowing the full story.

  2. Elisa Wyatt says:

    *even with

  3. Honey says:

    Just out of curiosity – did anyone notice no one has gotten the other commenter’s name right? It clearly says ‘Jaime’ – but all the replies write ‘Jamie’… Is it a purposeful attack? Or simple oversight? (I personally hate when people misspell or think my name is something different – it’s offensive)

    • Elisa Wyatt says:

      Please excuse me. You are right. It IS spelled differently. Brain injuries. Gotta love ‘em. (So frustrating, I PROMISE!) My eyes still see, and my ears still hear, but the signal gets scrambled sometimes when it gets to my brain. Every TBI is different in the part(s) of the brain it effects. It’s no fun remembering how I used to be (97/99 on the ASVAB) and comparing it to how I am now, especially when people think it is the way I have always been.

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