Duke Law 1Ls start a “Combat Exclusion” podcast!

This past week Duke Law welcomed a new class of first year students (called “1Ls”).  It’s a lot of fun to hear about their varied backgrounds and interests as they begin their legal education. As I talked with two of these 1Ls, I learned they already host a podcast that relates to national security and, as you’ll see below, I asked them a few questions about it.

The brainchild of two creative 1Ls, Ms. Chandler Cole and Army Captain (CPT) Johanna Crisman, the Combat Exclusion podcast is described as “Stories from the Frontlines of Gender Integration.” It’s free, and you can find it here.  

I listened to the most recent podcast, an interview with retired Army Brigadier General Rebecca (Becky) Halstead who was the first woman graduate of West Point to become a flag officer.  Yes, it discussed the combat exclusion issue but also much more. 

General Halstead shared many perspectives that are (or should be!) of interest to any leader (or, for that matter, follower) irrespective of gender.  I really, really enjoyed it (and the fact that General Halstead is a gifted speaker added to the experience!). Plus, the hosts had clearly done their homework and came prepared. 

Stories help us stand in another’s boots mentally. As these two innovative students interview others about their real world experiences of gender integration in the military’s past and present, others may discover doors for opportunities for the future. 

Before we get to the mini-interview with Ms. Cole and CPT Crisman, let’s orient ourselves to the issue of combat exclusion.

Combat exclusion in the armed forces

While U.S. history is filled with instances where women fought in America’s conflicts, women were barred from offically serving in direct combat roles until relatively recently.  The Congressional Research Service summarized the changes this way:

In 1993, all laws prohibiting females from serving in any occupation were repealed; however, by DOD policy, women were still excluded from serving in units or occupations involved in direct ground combat. In 2013, the DOD rescinded the Direct Ground Combat and Assignment Rule, which had excluded women from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission was to engage in direct combat on the ground.

This rule had the effect of prohibiting women from assignments to certain combat arms occupations and units (e.g.,infantry) and its removal was the last major policy barrier to women’s service in all occupational fields.The services were required to fully implement this change no later than January 1, 2016; however, they were allowed to request a waiver from the Secretary of Defense for further exclusion of women from certain positions. 

On December 3, 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the military to open all combat jobs to women with no waivers or exceptions.

The Air Force

As an Air Force veteran, I can tell you that the quintessential warfighters in that service are aviators.  Consequently, they have dominated the senior ranks.  Indeed, every Air Force Chief of Staff has been pilot–and often a fighter pilot (the current Chief of Staff, General CQ Brown, Jr., is a fighter pilot).  Thus, the combat exclusion issue evolved differently than it did in the Army.

The Air Force admitted its first class of women into undergraduate pilot training forty-five years ago.  However, it was not until 1994 that the service had its first female fighter pilot.  We now know this pilot as Major General Jeannie Leavitt.

General Leavitt has had an amazing career.  Not only has she accumulated more than 3,000 flying hours (including 300 in combat), she also became an instructor at the legendary Fighter Weapons School, served in operations Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and became the first woman to command a combat fighter wing (at nearby Seymour-Johnson AFB).  She still serves and is currently the Air Force’s Chief of Safety.

The Air Force is not, however, where it wants to be in terms of women pilots (or, really, pilots in general).  Last June retired Air Force colonel Eileen A. Bjorkman, now the executive director of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, wrote in The Washington Post:

To remain the best military in the world, the United States must draw on the talents and capabilities of all service members. Yet although women make up nearly one-quarter of U.S. Air Force officers, they make up only about 8 percent of Air Force pilots.

As disappointing as the 8 percent may be, it is notable that it is a higher percentage than that found in commercial aviation.  Consider this analysis:

The field of piloting has long been a male-dominated field. According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aeronautical Center data, just 7% of the 103,879 commercial pilots were women as of 2020.

The good news is that more women are in the proverbial pipeline.  Reports from last February said:

Citing FAA data, Women in Aviation International reports that 14.2% of student pilots are women as of 2020.  This number that has grown in recent years since 2017, when just 9.8% of students were women.

Can the Air Force benefit from this surging interest in aviation?  Maybe. Air Force Chief of Staff CQ Brown seems committed to diversifying the gender (and race) of the service’s aviation community.

Increasing the number of female pilots is not, however, simply a matter of recruiting more (as important as that is).  Rather, growing the inventory of women pilots also requires doing a better job at retention.  The service has its work cut out for it.  The Air Force Times says:

The disparity between male and female active-duty pilots [retention is stark], with female retention falling to 80 percent around 10 years of service compared to 90 percent of men. That widens to about 60 percent of men who stay in the Air Force around the 13-year mark, compared to about 40 percent of women.

Consequently, the Times reports, the Air Force “has multiple teams looking at minority and women’s issues to build a service that works better for everyone, from less stringent hair regulations for women to reconsidering how cockpits could fit people of more shapes and sizes.”

The Army

Integrating women into ground combat arms of infantry, armor, and artillery has proven to be challenging.  The rescission of the combat exclusion rule does seem to have increased the propensity of women to serve in the Army, but not necessarily in combat units.  The Congressional Research Service reports:

Some have questioned whether the opening of direct combat roles to women would have an effect on female propensity to serve. DOD surveys have found that 35% of new recruits reported that this policy change made them more likely to serve; however only 2% of female recruits wanted a combat specialty in Armor, Artillery, or Infantry.

Indeed, data shows women make up only about 2% of the Army’s combat arms units

Here’s the conundrum: as General Halstead noted in the Combat Exclusion podcast interview, a significant percentage of the Army’s senior leaders come from the ground combat arms.  It is hard to see how senior leadership of a warfighting organization can achieve gender diversification commensurate with the population if there are not more women in the combat arms. 

Leadership of combat formations in a warfighting organization matters.  After all, as the Supreme Court observed, “it is the primary business of armies and navies to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.” 

Performing the “primary business” of the military, that is, warfighting, comes at a real cost.  Assuming that casualty figures in a combat operation can be an indicator of combat actvity, consider what a 2020 Congressional Research Service report showed about the post-9/11 wars: of 4,418 servicembers who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, all but 110 were males.  In Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) 2,298 of 2,349 who died were men.

Since warfighting is the “primary business” of the Army, should it be suprising (given the compostion of its combat units) that its leadership is also heavily male? 

What can be done?  I’m convinced that the reason there is such a high percentage of men serving in ground combat units relates not to any reluctance on the part of women to assume risk, but rather is much due to the physical demands of such organizations.  As a group fewer women have, for example, the upper body strength and other physical capabilities that ground combat can require. 

But some do.

In a nation of 330 million people, I firmly believe there are enough women able to meet the physical requirements of ground combat units in order to make gender representation more equitable and, thus, the distribution of risk fairer. 

That said, can enough of those women be identified and brought into the military voluntarily? (A draft isn’t desirable for many reasons.)   

There may be another path.  Warfighting is becoming increasingly technological, and “combat” can take place, for example, in the cyber realm where the emphasis is on mental acuity.  There would not be a need for the kind of demanding physical standards that ground combat roles might require but which become barriers to entry for many women.  

Clearly, women can perform as well as their male counterparts in high-tech warfighting fields, and this could lead to more women in senior leadership positions as new kinds of “combat” become ever more important in 21st century conflicts.  The Army seems to recognize this and acknowledges that “investing in women to fill leadership roles in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM” makes sense. 

That said, the Army and the other military services are in a tough fight for talent.  They are competing in a civilian employment environment where high-tech talent in general is in short supply, and where women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce.  

The resolution of those questions are beyond the scope of this one post, but in the meantime, what can we do to ameliorate the negative impact of the previous combat exclusion policy, and facilitate the advancement of women in combat specialties?

That’s where I believe Ms. Cole’s and CPT Crisman’s new podcast can help.

The interview

Though busy with orientation, both Ms. Cole and CPT Crisman graciously took time out from a packed schedule to answer a couple of questions for Lawfire: 

Tell us about yourselves 

Ms. Cole:  I am from a military family that settled in Springfield, VA. I commissioned from West Point in 2017 and served as an Army Engineer Officer for five years, including a deployment to Syria as a route clearance platoon leader.  I have a dog (Jovi) and a cat (Monica) and enjoy painting in my free time.

CPT Crisman:  I’m originally from DuPont, WA. Both my parents were career Army Officers and inspired me to service at a young age. I attended West Point and graduated in 2018.

I was commissioned as an Army cannon artillery officer, and recently assessed into the Army JAG Corps to attend law school through the Funded Legal Education Program. I am married to another West Point grad (YG17), Brian, and we have two dogs, Hector and Charlotte. 

Why did you decide to go to law school, and why did you pick Duke?

Ms. Cole:  I decided to go to law school because I wanted to continue serving in a different capacity and saw law as an excellent opportunity to do just that. I chose Duke because of its renowned reputation, involvement with the veteran community, and scholarship in specialized legal fields, like firearms law.

CPT Crisman:  I decided to go to law school because I wanted to be an Army Judge Advocate.  I chose Duke because of its close-knit community, MG (R) Dunlap (not an exaggeration, I genuinely chose Duke because it had a retired JAG on the faculty), and its proximity to my husband, who is a USMC MV-22 pilot stationed at MCAS New River, NC.  

Why did you start the podcast, and what do you hope to accomplish with it? 

Ms. Cole: After five years in the Army, I found myself reflecting on my time in service. My graduating class at West Point was the first to allow women to directly enter combat arms specialties and, while I didn’t pursue an infantry or armor career, I spent my early years as a junior officer in recently-integrated units.

As my time in service came to a close, I recognized that this would be a turning point for many of the very first women to join combat arms specialties as they decided whether to remain in the military. I wanted to provide a platform for those women to share their experiences while providing the narrative backdrop of previous integration experiences.

CPT Crisman:  This summer Chandler reached out to me about collaborating on this project. I’ll let her tell her reasons for it, but at least for me, I felt like this would be an awesome opportunity to understand my own experiences as I transition out of combat arms in relation to the greater experience of women across the military.

From a policy perspective, I certainly hope that decision-makers can hear the struggles and suggestions from the women at the front lines and make the policies reflect the current needs of our warfighters.

From a more personal perspective, I hope that young leaders listen to the podcast and find encouragement and wisdom. Finally, I hope it acts as a call to arms from men and women alike to build and develop diverse teams so we can have a more lethal and effective fighting force. 

Remember, you can find the Combat Exclusion podcast here.  Give it a try!







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