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Missouri servicewoman has faced the enemy, but not officially

Thursday, March 7, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:18 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 15, 2013
Capt. Elizabeth Arrington is a Sapper Leader student. Only 5 to 10 percent of Sappers are women, and only 40 percent finish the program with a Sapper tag. Arrington has been deployed to Afghanistan three times, where her platoon was ambushed on multiple occasions by enemy forces.

FORT LEONARD WOOD — The summer temperatures were oppressively high the day Capt. Elizabeth Arrington led troops along a supply route near the Pakistan border.

It was 2009 and her first deployment to Afghanistan. As a distribution platoon leader for the Army, 23-year-old Arrington was guiding a convoy of about 30 soldiers along a mountain path to a base in need of supplies.

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The narrow, rocky dirt roads were not made for military vehicles, she said. Pockmarked with deep potholes and prone to crumbling away down the sides of steep cliffs, the roads frequently caused heavy trucks to get stuck.

"When you're stationary, you're prone to ambush," Arrington said.

About two miles into the mission, she heard the distinct "pop-pop-pop" of bullets rattling off the metal exterior of the trucks.

She tried to identify the source, but in a landscape fraught with caves, labyrinth-like valleys and thick vegetation, locating the shooter can be difficult, she said.

"I immediately experienced a huge adrenaline dump," Arrington said. "All my senses turned on, and I became hyper-aware."

Two smells collided — gunpowder and the harsh scent of a greasy machine gun hot from firing rounds.

"Everything slowed down. Everything became deliberate."

At that point, she became a manager of chaos.

Unofficially on the front lines

Arrington joined the Air Force when she was 18. She was recruited by the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to play volleyball after being scouted at a high school tournament.

Three years into her Air Force education, she cross-commissioned to the Army with the initial goal of flying helicopters. Instead, she ended up in the engineer program at Fort Leonard Wood, the largest military base in Missouri. 

She spent eight months in basic training after she arrived on base in August 2008. Nearly two years later, she deployed to Afghanistan as a platoon leader.

Arrington would face enemy fire several times that summer, although women were not acknowledged as soldiers in combat. She was clearly in danger, though not officially.

On Jan. 23, just before he left office, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the longstanding policy that banned women from combat. The irony was not lost on Arrington and other female soldiers. Many of them have spent days, if not months, on the front lines.

But Panetta's order restored a measure of fairness to the equation. Women can no longer be excluded from 230,000 jobs that come with physical demands, cohabitation with combat troops or a lack of privacy.

Military services must recognize their role in combat situations, unless they can persuade the Department of Defense that jobs should remain open exclusively to men. The services have until May 15 to submit plans to remove all job restrictions.

The change is a belated recognition of reality: Women in the Navy and Air Force have flown combat aircraft since 1993, said Capt. Michael Vizcarra, commanding officer of the University of Missouri Naval ROTC.

As of 2010, women made up 14.5  percent of the total active force, 20 percent of the reserve force and 20 percent of new recruits, according to statistics from the Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy organization for women veterans.

Modern warfare has blurred the lines of the battlefield. Attacks can come from anywhere with tactics such as roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

“There’s no hard-and-fast battle line,” Vizcarra said. “That’s how you get a lot of non-direct combat warriors getting injured or killed.”

Meeting the demands of combat

Panetta's decision ignited a debate about whether women can handle the physical and mental stresses of combat situations.

For Arrington, enemy fire does not follow gender lines.

'When you're getting shot at, you're going to shoot back," she said. "An ambush is an ambush, and I've been shot at."

As a platoon leader in Afghanistan, she took command of her troops, even during ambush situations. Her first move was always to assess the damage, which included counting casualties.

Destruction could range from mild to severe, caused by anything from guns to rocket-propelled grenades. The more powerful the weapon, the harder it was to break contact with the enemy, she said.  

She also needed to gauge the location of the attacker, looking for plumes of smoke and other signs. Stringing together these bits of information kept her emotions from running haywire, she said.

"You have to hang on, because you're in the fight," she said. "You can't panic."

Arrington was trained for combat. In 1999, an elite program called the Sapper Leader Course began accepting women, and she signed up in late 2010. She was one of only three women who enrolled in a class of 45. Just 1.8 percent of the graduates in the course are women.

No breaks in training

The 28-day, intense training program prepares combat engineers for the front lines. Teams in the course run battle drills out in the hilly woods surrounding Fort Leonard Wood to learn how to react in combat.

Arrington went through the program at the end of October and into November. Nighttime temperatures often dropped below freezing, she said.

At all times, she said soldiers carry 10-days' worth of supplies: a rucksack, weapons, ammunition, clothing, helmets and food.

"All of that adds up to about 70 or 80 pounds total, and you wear it on your back," Arrington said.

Each night, one soldier volunteers to carry one of the heaviest ground weapons — a 240 Bravo machine gun, 50 inches in length, that fires between 750 and 950 rounds per minute and can weigh up to 30 pounds.

The night Arrington offered to carry it, she felt she had to prove herself.

"The guys in my class appreciated the fact that I was volunteering to carry something heavy," she said.

It was the third night of patrolling. Her team had neither eaten a great deal nor slept more than three hours the previous nights.

"I think the longest we went without sleep was 27 hours," she said.

But Arrington was no stranger to the tough conditions of the Sapper Leader Course.

She had already endured the physical and mental strains of war during her time in Afghanistan. Her experience contributed to her success in the course.

"It requires a balance between mental and physical stamina," she said. "Every challenge I've gone through has built up my resolve and further challenged my limits."

Arrington said her gender has never been an issue.

"I think maybe people might have expected me to be a little bit physically weaker, but they saw that wasn't always the case," she said.

"They just wanted me to do my job to the best of my ability. I'm sure my soldiers thought the same when I took care of them."

Looking back, she said she is awed by the responsibilities she took on in Afghanistan at just 23 years old. The average age of her soldiers was between 24 and 29, she said. But she made the decisions, kept them in line, trained with them, ate with them and reminded them that "failure was not an option" when it came to missions.

"There were times when we had multiple missions a week. The soldiers were tired, and it can be tough to motivate people under those conditions, especially when it's very likely that you're going to see enemy contact."

Valor without acknowledgement

Despite women's legal exclusion from combat, two servicewomen have been awarded the Silver Star, the military's third-highest medal for valor in combat. Of the veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 11.4 percent are women.

Both conflicts have claimed 152 female lives since 2001 and 2003, respectively.

Yet until January, when women were officially cleared for combat, they could not serve in artillery, tanks, special forces, combat engineering and other "ground combat" specialties. They were barred from thousands of positions that could have advanced their careers.

Last November, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four plaintiffs who challenged the policy.

"(Women) shoot, they return fire, they drag wounded comrades to safety, they engage the enemy," one of the plaintiffs argued in the case. "They risk their lives for their country, and the combat exclusion policy does them a great disservice."

When Panetta announced the policy change, the ACLU coolly embraced the lift of the ban. It was unclear whether the lawsuit would continue.

"We welcome this statement with cautious optimism, as we hope that it will be implemented fairly and quickly," said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, in a press release after the announcement.

Change will be gradual. After plans are submitted in May, the services have until Jan. 1, 2016, to implement them.

Whether women will remain exempt from draft registration is yet another issue that has yet to be addressed. Currently, the law compels only men between the ages of 18 and 25 to register.

The Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that it is constitutional to restrict registration to men because the draft is designed to create a pool of potential combat troops should a security emergency require immediate support.

The court held that there was no reason to register women because, at the time, they were excluded from serving in battlefield positions. Now that could change.

"All we've been told is that the Pentagon ban has been lifted, but women have been in engagements over the past 10 to 12 years," Arrington said.

"But no woman's been an infantryman, and that's where the differences lie. That's what needs to be spelled out in the statute."

At the end of the day, Arrington said that she has to stay focused on her accomplishments and how she performs.

"That's all I can expect from myself. I don't let the gender difference bother me," she said. "I can't let it bother me."

History of women in the armed forces

In January, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta overturned a 1994 Pentagon rule that bans women from combat positions. While women will not be able to move into combat positions immediately, they have served in the armed forces in some capacity since the American Revolution. By Amartya Bagchi

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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