Marines study shows resistance to women in combat

PARRIS ISLAND, SC - JANUARY 15: United States Marine Corps female recruit adjusts her Kevlar helmet January 15, 2003 before re-entering the Combat Pool for another swim lesson during boot camp on Parris Island, SC. Under the watchful eyes of swim instructors, recruits are required to swim in full gear and learn limited strokes and breathing to stay afloat along with life saving techniques. (Photo by Stephen Morton/Getty Images) Stephen Morton

In a sign of resistance over a new Pentagon policy that would open thousands of combat roles to women, a Marine Corps survey shows that 17 percent of Marine respondents say they would probably leave the Corps if women move into those previously banned front-line positions. The number jumps to 22 percent if women are assigned involuntarily to those jobs.

The Associated Press, which obtained the survey of 53,000 Marines, reports it was conducted last summer and the results were given to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta before he announced the decision last week. The 17 percent refers to Marines who were previously planning to stay in the military or undecided about it.

About 4 percent of female Marines surveyed said they would consider leaving if the 1993 ban was lifted, and about 31 percent of women respondents said they would be interested in moving into a combat position.

Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps., told reporters at a news conference Thursday that the infantry side of the Corps is skeptical about how women will perform in their units, but most Marines support the policy change.

Mady Segal, a military sociologist who has served as an adviser to the Defense Department in gender integration policy, said people shouldn't get too worked up over the numbers.

"One of the things you have to realize is that service members, when surveyed may say they are against some proposed policy change and would leave if it happens; the policy changes were made and few service members left," Segal told CBSNews.com. "This happened with sexual orientation integration. They said they were going to leave, and they didn't." In fact, she said, the changes have resulted in the retention of more service members.

Segal added she was actually surprised the number wasn't higher, because the Marines are the branch that have the smallest percentage of women and are thus the least likely to see them in combat roles. Those male Marines who have worked with women in combat zones are the ones who are likely to be more positive, she said.

The Pentagon's new policy, to go into effect in the next few years, incited a lot of controversy since it was announced: Are women physically and mentally capable of fighting on the front lines? How are gender-integrated units going to affect the dynamic of war? And although the Defense Department insists it won't happen, could the standards to qualify for combat roles be lowered to accommodate women?

Women argue they've already been in combat, they just aren't recognized for it or lack proper training. Commanders have found women increasingly useful in Iraq in Afghanistan, where only female members of the military are allowed to communicate and work with other women in the villages.

Dawn Halfaker, who commanded a Military Police Platoon in Iraq, lost her arm fighting alongside the infantry.

"There's not a big difference at all, in many of the missions we did with infantry," Dawn Halfaker told CBS News correspondent David Martin. "We were with artillery units, we were all fighting the same fight, doing the same thing."

Those who are against opening all combat roles to women argue that serving on the front lines alongside women will hurt a unit's effectiveness. Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, retired from the military and executive Vice President of the Family Research Council, called lifting the combat ban a "social experiment" that will put unnecessary burden on commanders to deal with separating genders and dealing with "underlying sexual tensions."

David Segal, also a military sociologist and married to Mady, said he heard similar arguments when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed, allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the military.

"Two or three years ago when we were talking about lifting 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' there was same kind of hue and cry from a large number of generals: 'We're going to lose combat efficiency,' Now we're over a year downstream, and none of those bad things happened," he said.

Still, a number of op-eds by former soldiers have popped up since Panetta announced he was lifting the combat ban, lamenting the policy change. Thomas James Brennan, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in a New York Times editorial that the new policy could worsen sexual harassment in the military, despite the success of the DADT repeal.

"Not surprisingly, many Marines worry about whether living in close quarters, on or off deployment, will increase sexual harassment, assault and fraternization," he wrote.

David Segal notes, however, that a lot of criticism is due to a generation gap and comes from older and retired generals. Although it will take a lot of time, he thinks that opening combat roles to women will help reduce the amount of sexual harassment in the military (the Department of Defense estimates there are about 19,000 instances of sexual assault in the military per year).

"I believe in the long run, as we define for our military professionals women are their equals, I think we're going to see a reduction in harassment," he said. "I don't think it'll change overnight, but I think that change will take place."

Female soldiers know they'll face some resistance from men about applying for front-line roles that were once closed to them. Col. Christine Stark told CBS News's Martin she doubts women will be lining up for the job, but she's not too worried about backlash from male soldiers. "I think it's only a matter of time before women just prove them wrong," she said.

  • Sara Dover On Twitter»

    Sara Dover is an associate news editor for CBSNews.com

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