A Female Officer's Perspective

on Women in Combat

written: 03 December 2002
revised: 27 December 2004

West Point commissions nearly seventy percent of its officers into combat arms upon graduation, to include the Infantry, Combat Engineers, Aviation, Armor, and Field Artillery. Throughout a full tenure at West Point, a cadet is exposed to techniques from these branches, along with available time to train with these units and take part in real world missions in order to get a full feel for the units within that branch. Out of these, only the Infantry is completely off limits to female cadets. Females can serve with Combat Engineers, Aviators, Field Artillery, and to a limited extent in Cavalry units.

Military Intelligence, Military Police, Adjutant General, Quartermaster, Transportation, Chemical Corps, Signal, Medical Service, Finance, Air Defense, and Ordnance are not neglected at the Academy by any extent. They do, however, take a back seat to the combat arms because of academy branching requirements and the academy mission, and to the experiences that graduates are expected to have when they hit the field.

 One of my best friends is an adjutant general officer, in charge of a postal platoon. She has been deployed for the past four months to Afghanistan and has been involved in several light firing incidents. Her troops have had to utilize both traditional infantry and MOUT ( = Military Operations in Urban Terrain) urban fighting techniques in the performance of their duties.

Another female officer I graduated with is a transportation officer in Korea. While helping to transport heavy equipment to the Joint Security Area, her platoon came into contact with a pair of long-buried antipersonnel mines and had to react quickly, using field first aid techniques and body carries.

As a quartermaster officer first in Kosovo, and now in Saudi Arabia, another one of my classmates has had convoys take small arms fire several times while delivering supplies to base camps. She has had to utilize good tactical planning and terrain analysis in order to complete her mission. She has no infantry or military police assets available to escort her, so her soldiers must rely on their own skills and combat assets to complete their missions.

All of these experiences had by officers in support roles would have turned out very differently had they not had adequate exposure to the combat arms provided by the United States Military Academy. The Academy's cadet basic training teaches small unit movement techniques and squad level tactical operations, the same training that infantry soldiers do on a daily basis. The second summer Camp Buckner experience familiarizes cadets with every branch from Combat Engineers to Medical Service, ensuring that cadets are familiar with all available options for their career as commissioned officers, but also ensuring that such experiences have a combat focus.

West Point does this for a reason. When it comes down to the wire, when we step onto the plane and get deployed to a hostile country, NO SOLDIER IS IMMUNE. We must all think with a combat focus on a daily basis in order to achieve our missions for the Army and to achieve our own goals as leaders: making sure our soldiers have the skills necessary for them to complete their mission and come home alive. This responsibility is not dependent on the choice of branch. It is the responsibility of all commissioned officers. By taking the focus away from combat units, West Point would do its cadets a great disservice. The combat training and mental focus provided by the Academy is essential to the development of tactically and technically proficient Army leaders.

As an engineer in the United States Army, I have attended the Sapper Leader Course and become the seventh woman to walk away with a certificate. I am a heavy equipment platoon leader, and my primary platoon mission is rapid roadway and runway repair, which more often than not occurs under hostile conditions. My platoon trains every week on combat engineer techniques, chemical defense techniques, and a multitude of other skills my soldiers need in order to perform effectively and come home safely. I achieved all of this by keeping in mind that I needed to learn every combat skill available to me in order to train my soldiers properly, and to provide them with competent leadership regardless of the situation. Regardless of branch, and REGARDLESS OF GENDER, all leaders need to remain focused on these combat arms because these are the techniques that will keep their soldiers alive!

In today's volatile world, in today's changing Army, women, and especially female leaders, need to be prepared for the reality of combat. As the minutes tick by, it becomes more and more likely that all of us will see it. And we, as women, will not be sitting safely on the home front, in clean air-conditioned buildings, with our uniforms pressed and starched just so, ensuring that our soldiers have hot meals and good communication equipment. No. We will be down in the mud with our soldiers, men and women alike.

I haven't gotten where I am today by worrying about that vague amorphous mass of complaints known as "women's issues." To be perfectly frank, I've been a little too busy playing in the mud, preparing for the kind of experiences women grads like me are facing throughout the Army, to worry about it.

Right now, the best piece of advice I can give female candidates is in the sixth and seventh paragraph. No soldier is immune to the hostility of combat, and it is our job as commissioned officers, as leaders of soldiers, to ensure that they have the skills necessary to complete their mission in any kind of environment, no matter how hostile, and come home safely afterward.

1LT Kristin C. Graham
United States Army Corps of Engineers
United States Military Academy, Class of 2001