Cleared for Combat 10 Years Ago, Women Still Fight for Change in the Military
She marched 12 miles with the same rucksack the men carried. She wriggled beneath knee-high barbed wire through the infamous muddy worm pit. The mountaineering phase was as frigid for her as it was for the men in Ranger School that winter.
Army Capt. Emily Lilly — then a single mother of two just a month shy of her 39th birthday — proved that she had the strength, endurance, grit, tenacity and respect from her peers to graduate from the Army’s toughest leadership course two years after it opened to women.
But there she was, with the coveted Ranger tab on her shoulder in Kuwait, seven years after the military lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles, and the Army had no women’s body armor for Lilly.
“I got the small male one; they said that will work,” Lilly said. “But it doesn’t because the torso is too long for women and it’s sitting on my hips and every time I had to get in or out of a Humvee, I was barely able to pick up my leg.”
It was 10 years ago this week that Leon E. Panetta, then the secretary of defense, announced the end of America’s ban on women serving in combat roles.
In that time, thousands of women officially became the warriors they’d been off the books for decades. They flooded armor and infantry units with bravado and got smacked down for their gumption. They earned respect and changed minds, hearts and regulations. One group of 22 studied by experts summed up the experience for most — half of them left the military, two of them were sexually assaulted, all of them made history.
“These women have defied all of the naysayers,” said Col. Ellen Haring, one of two Army Reserve officers who filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department and the Army for barring women from certain combat units and other jobs on the basis of their gender just a few months before the Pentagon lifted the ban. “Not only do many women — like men — want combat jobs, but they are excelling in these roles.”
In 2015, when Ranger School opened to women after a couple of years fighting bureaucracy and pushback, the nation gasped in awe as infantry officers Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver graduated. Each year after that, more women passed with more superlatives — first Latina, first Black woman, first mother, oldest woman (Lilly) and, seven years after they let women in, there are more than 100 who wear that Ranger tab.
Now it’s up to the military culture and structure to change. Women stepped up and did their parts, under great pressure.