West Point & Combat Arms

A Female Officer's Perspective on Women In Combat
27 December 2004


Kristin Graham

27 December 2004

More than two years ago, I was participating in an email discussion with several West Point affiliates, including several graduates, when a female graduate began lamenting the current state of West Point training.  She felt that the Academy placed too much emphasis on the combat arms and neglected familiarization with the combat service and combat service support branches.  Worse yet, she claimed that the Academy was neglecting women’s training because it neglected these branches.  In response to these claims, I wrote a response that is now posted on my webpage under the heading “WEST POINT AND COMBAT ARMS.” 

A lot has happened to me and to our country since I first wrote my response, and I feel an update is warranted.  Since that time, I have had the chance to see combat for myself and to see if any of our theories were correct. Time has proven us right. Everyone needs to know Combat Arms. Some of the rules of combat have changed significantly since I wrote that essay, and our Soldiers have seen and are continuing to be involved in extended combat operations.  People ask me if combat has changed my opinions, and if after being in a war zone myself, do I feel differently about women in the military, about women in combat?

No.  And let me tell you why.

NO SOLDIER IS IMMUNE.  I stated it previously, and I’ll state it again.  The whole world realized the truth of this back in April 2003, when a military maintenance company lost its way and PFC Jessica Lynch became a name every household in America knew.  PFC Lynch and her comrades in arms were part of a Maintenance company.

Some scoff at the idea of a Maintenance company in combat, and laugh at the idea of service support Soldiers wielding weapons.  There is this unfortunate perception that service and service support Soldiers are presumed 'safe'. For this reason, someone presumably forgot to make sure these young Soldiers had cleaned their weapons, performed functions checks, or even knew how to use them properly.  When PFC Lynch was taken, I have come to understand that she had not fired a single round from her weapon.  Increased training would have mitigated some of the problems they experienced and a lesson in map reading would have helped them from getting lost in the first place.

Here's my point: all leaders need to remained focused on Combat Arms because these are the techniques that will keep your Soldiers alive.  There are a frighteningly large number of people who believe that the “non-combat” arms (Military Intelligence, Adjutant General, Ordnance, Quartermaster, Transportation, Chemical, Signal, Medical Service, Finance, and Air Defense) need to learn combat arms about as much as you really need to know that in the event of a crash landing, your seat cushion can be used as a 'floatation device'.  However, crash landings do occur, and “non-combat” arms get attacked.  Training these leaders in combat arms could save their lives and importantly their Soldiers’ lives.

The world has changed, and the face of battle has only gotten uglier.  Right now, America’s enemies do not believe in standing in nice orderly rows, wearing starched and crisp uniforms, and sending volleys of fire only at the designated combatants, who have also clearly distinguished themselves from the hapless non-combatant civilians around the scene of battle.  America’s enemies do not wear uniforms.  Now, the only difference between a combatant and a non-combatant is whether or not he or she is pointing a weapon at you with an intent to use it. 

America’s most insidious enemies wear the faces of friends, and come to our Soldiers bringing gifts and little trinkets to thank them for their service, while underneath their clothes, they wear an explosive vest with a remote detonator.  America’s enemies do not worry about harming the innocent.  The Iraqis who captured Jessica Lynch, the insurgents who allegedly beheaded Margaret Hassan, the aid worker who helped countless Iraqis over decades of service, the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and thousands of civilian non-combatants inside, cared nothing for harming the innocent.  The enemy doesn’t care whether Soldiers are male or female.  There are no “safe” roles anymore and everyone is a 'target.' Terrorists love what they call 'sheep' or 'soft targets' (unarmed). If not even those outside the military are safe, those of us in the military should definitely know how to fight.

The NEW War is Changing the role of women soldiers in theater.

This should change how we view war and how we view women’s roles in the military.  While I served in Iraq, I started out with the 864th Engineer Battalion, a construction battalion whose primary focus was airfield repair in Balad.  After several months, I had the opportunity to serve as a platoon leader also with the 14th Combat Engineer Battalion, whose primary mission was securing and defending several enemy ammunition supply points and later traveling the highways of Iraq, searching for and destroying improvised explosive devices.  In both of these battalions, my platoon and I came under attack.  We were safe in neither role.  However, even though I had a more active combat role in my second battalion, I felt a great deal safer with the training I received as a combat engineer.  By remaining focused on the danger and how to fight it, we were a much more effective, disciplined, and lethal unit.  Every unit we encountered traveling the roads of Iraq put themselves in danger day after day.  The transportation and ordnance companies ferrying supplies and fuel throughout Iraq came under attack more than any other units in our vicinity.  Funny…they’re supposed to be “non-combat” arms.  The combat techniques they used kept them alive and allowed them to carry out their missions despite the enemy’s efforts.

Some believe that giving women combat roles is wrong, while others view female participation in the defense of our country as a necessary and reasonable course of action.  Both positions have validity.  As it is, we are the only nation that integrates women into the armed forces in an active combat role.  However, the old attitude that women must remain behind safe lines and in non-combatant roles should be redefined.  Not every man and not every woman in our culture, regardless of training, is ready for the rigors of a combat environment.  Not everyone has the physical strength or mental stamina to endure the hardships of military life in a combat zone. Soldiering is not for everyone. However, those in the military should be trained and prepared for combat should it come to them.

Although I would be the first to admit that far fewer women than men can achieve the minimum standard in our grueling profession, I firmly believe that any woman who wishes to serve in a combat branch should be allowed the chance to meet this standard, and to bear arms to defend her country.

 My recommendation would be to design a set of physical and mental standards for each of the branches, to administer these to both men and women, and allow any, regardless of gender, the right to serve in the combat arms if he or she meets the SAME standards. 


Whenever you take a strong position,  criticism sometimes comes with the territory,  it's part of being on the cutting edge in our new army.

Amusingly, I’ve been told by a detractor that I am not a combat engineer because I’m a woman, and women, according to him, can't be combat engineers.

Well…I am a woman, an engineer, and I’ve encountered hostile enemy.  I’ve used fire and maneuver to close with and destroy the enemy.  This would, I believe, be defined as “combat.”  I am not alone.  Many female soldiers have fought and are fighting in Iraq, and we consider ourselves Combat Soldiers, and believe in the Warrior Ethos.

However, every branch runs the risk of encountering the enemy while serving, and every branch needs to train appropriately.  I still firmly believe that leaders are responsible for their Soldiers, and it is every leader’s responsibility to ensure that his or her Soldiers have the training they need to complete their mission and come safely home.  As I mentioned before, I believe that West Point is doing the right thing in focusing its Cadets, its future leaders, toward combat.  This is the world they will face, this is the battle into which they will lead their Soldiers.  If the “non-combat” arms take a back seat to combat techniques because of this, it only means that more leaders out there will have a better knowledge of the techniques they need to fight, to win, and to come safely home.

 If this article provides a little discussion around the dinner table and an appreciation for what our soldiers are doing around the world to protect our freedoms, then I am pleased.

God Bless you all!


For more information on American Soldiers at work, see the official Army home page at www.army.mil

For more information on the United States Military Academy at West Point and its training programs, visit the West Point home page at www.usma.edu