HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. –
To many people the announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, that eliminated the barrier to women serving in direct combat positions was historic and it was.
The military has long recognized that in the current conflicts there are no “safe areas” and that female Soldiers have faced the same dangers as their male counterparts. In fact female Soldiers are vital to the success of numerous missions expressly because they are female; in a Muslim country it is forbidden for a male to look at or talk to, let alone touch or search, a women who is not related to them. For this reason many female Service members have found themselves “attached” to infantry units for the purpose of interacting with Muslim women.
The Jan. 24, 2013, announcement will now allow female Service members access to 53,000 positions in select units that were closed to them. Another 184,000 positions currently closed by their “specialty” (infantry, Special Forces, etc...) will be evaluated by each service and female Service members will be allowed in “to the maximum extent possible”. It does not necessarily mean that female Soldiers will serve, for example, in the infantry. The memorandum signed by Sec. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey states “Currently closed units and positions will be opened by each relevant Service … and after the development and implementation of validated, gender-neutral occupational standards and the required notifications to Congress.” For example a female human resources specialist can now be considered for a human resources specialist’s position in an infantry regiment; previously only a male Soldier would be considered.
“Being over there with an infantry line company was an amazing experience for me,” said Master Sgt. Kimberly Alberico, “You had to earn respect, and I think it goes both ways. Respect is a big thing. If you’re a professional Soldier and you do your job … you do earn the respect of people, male or female, you do earn that respect.”
In 2007, Alberico, then a Sgt. 1st Class and a military police officer deployed to Baghdad, Iraq with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts Army National Guard. The unit had sought out female military police officers to deploy with them for the purpose of interacting with Iraqi women.
“I was supposed to be a platoon sergeant for (Female) Iraqi detainees,” recalled Alberico, currently a human resource specialist, 26th Maneuver Enhanced Brigade, MARNG, “but the mission changed and the females were integrated into various platoons.”
Alberico, like many Soldiers is qualified to perform more than one specialized duty; her other job is as a human resource specialist. When the mission changed, her HR skillset became her main duty; that didn’t mean a job behind the front lines.
‘It’s an asymmetrical battlefield,” said Alberico, “so it’s not like you are going to the front line, you are in the front line.”
Starting on Easter Sunday, 2008, the International Zone (Green Zone) in Baghdad was attacked by a variety of rockets and mortars fired from the Sadr City section of the city. Each barrage was usually made up of multiple rounds that impacted at various locations. There were causalities from these attacks. Eventually U.S. and Iraqi Forces cleared Sadr City of the insurgents after an intense ground campaign.
“For forty-five days straight I think we were bombed,” recalled Alberico.
For the Soldiers who were in the Green Zone at this time, the constant shelling and the dangers that it posed did not discriminate between genders. Each Soldier dealt with the shelling in their own way.
“I think it depends on the individual,” said Alberico, “everyone has a certain level of tolerance.”
When the D Co, 1-181 Infantry Regiment rotated home, Alberico and the other female Soldiers left the unit.
“If you maintain a level of professionalism, you shouldn’t have any issues,” said Alberico, “A lot of the Soldiers said that they would go on another deployment with me. These were the senior people; it was important for me to earn their respect. When the infantry was MOBing again (mobilizing to deploy) … they said ‘sure, we’ll take Master Sgt. Alberico’.”
In 2011 Alberico deployed to Afghanistan with the 26th MEB.
Currently women comprise 13.7% of the Soldiers in the Massachusetts Army National Guard and 19 % of the Airmen in the Massachusetts Air National Guard; many of them have deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and/or Operation Iraqi Freedom.
A recent review of Guardsmen currently serving in the Massachusetts National Guard revealed that:
In the Army Guard;
- 499 Soldiers have received the Combat Action Badge, 29 are female.
-54 Soldiers who have received the Purple Heart Medal, 1 is female.
In the Air Guard
-8 Airmen have received the Air Force Combat Action Medal; all are male.
-2 Airmen have received the Purple Heart Medal; both are male.
"The Massachusetts National Guard is home to the four oldest units in military. Three of those units are exclusive to male Soldiers,” said Maj. Gen. L. Scott Rice, The Adjutant General, Massachusetts National Guard, “ I support the decision to integrate women into the remaining restricted occupational fields within our military and look forward to implementing this change here in birthplace of the National Guard.”