Local vets see change as positive

Baton Rouge area veterans welcomed Thursday’s announcement by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that women would no longer be excluded from serving in front-line combat positions but said they should be held to the same standards as men.

Retired Army Master Sgt. Tanya Whitney, 51, of Sorrento, said the military looks at combat experience when promoting officers and prior to Panetta’s announcement, there were only so many military jobs that would give women the opportunity to see combat.

“I think it’s good that it will at least give those women who think they can perform combat duties the ability to serve in that manner,” Whitney said. “You still have a lot of the glass ceiling as far as promotions for officers.”

She said she is not sure how many women will take advantage of the policy change, but it will probably not be as many as people think.

“It’s going to definitely take a special person to go through some of the training combat infantry go through,” she said.

Women in the U.S. military already serve in combat and combat support roles as helicopter pilots, medics, military police and intelligence officers. The historic change announced by Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to thousands of front-line artillery, infantry, armor, special operations and pararescue jobs.

The Navy also announced that it is opening jobs for female sailors on smaller attack submarines — ships that had traditionally been closed to women largely due to privacy concerns in extremely close quarters.

“We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified,” Panetta said at a news conference in Washington.

Staff Sgt. Abigayle Richard, 35, of Baton Rouge, a member of the Louisiana National Guard’s Headquarters Company, 769th Engineer Battalion, has been in the military for 15 years.

She said she views the change as a positive one and hopes to see women take advantage of the situation.

“Finally, they’ve taken out that label, ‘Only males.’ They (women) need to handle up and meet the same standards that the males do,” Richard said. “These women wanted to serve their country in that capacity and they are fully capable of doing it and they should be allowed to do it.”

Richard said a few years ago, a position opened up in her battalion for which she was qualified, but was passed over because she was not a combat engineer, a position she was previously precluded from achieving because she was a woman.

“That was my heartache,” she said.

With the policy change, she said she could work toward the higher rank and pay now.

“It will give me more opportunity to advance in my battalion and my brigade,” Richard said.

But not all female veterans are happy about the change.

“I’m not for it. I’m an old-fashioned person and I’m not for it 1 percent,” Betty “Jean” Hempel, 70, of Zachary, who served in the Marine Corps from 1960 to 1962, said Thursday afternoon.

“I joined the military to get away from home and eventually I wanted to go back home. If I was ever sent into combat, I think I would have stood out in the middle and told them to shoot me.”

She said some women may not be aware of the full ramifications of the change.

“I really think women are angry because they are not getting what they deserve and they aren’t thinking that they may die and leave their small children at home,” said Hempel, who also worked in the Zachary Police Department for 16 years. “I don’t think the majority of them are thinking that.

“It’s gonna be hard for them. I’m not saying they can’t do it. I’m just saying that I’m against it.”

Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.

The leaders said no physical standards will be lowered just to send more women closer to the battlefront.

Under the new memo, military service chiefs will have until May 15 to develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, may take longer.

The services will have until January 2016 to argue that some positions should remain closed to women.

Hempel also said today’s military is vastly different that the one she joined more than 50 years ago as a 17 year old.

“All we did was office work,” Hempel said. “We did go through boot camp. It was a mild boot camp and we didn’t learn to shoot guns. All we did was learn to march. We learned how to clean latrines, we learned a lot of that. We learned how to clean and clean and clean.”

Whitney said the notion that women were not in combat before Thursday is false.

“If you think women aren’t in combat now, you’re sadly mistaken,” Whitney said. “I think you’re still going to have some of the men who do not want women in combat. There is no front line anymore, there is no distinct front line. It doesn’t exist and it really never has.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.