Infantry Women
Sep 15, 2012

For thousands of years, the infantry soldier has carried heavy loads over long distances, enduring bad weather and worse food, often with the prospect of deadly hand-to-hand combat at journey’s end. For the past decade, Canadian women have fought alongside men in Afghanistan. ­Hundreds of women served as combat soldiers between 2000 and 2011, most in Afghanistan, with a total of more than 600 deployments of 60 days or more. All combat jobs demand physical fitness and mental toughness. The infantry role, in particular, calls for endurance in very rough conditions as well. How well did Canadian women who patrolled on foot ‘outside the wire’ withstand the physical challenges of frontline infantry work?

2002 – Pte Angie Abbey, an infantry soldier with 3 PPCLI, maintains security during a humanitarian assistance visit to the village of Quadzikariz, Afghanistan. (Photo: MCpl Danielle Bernier, DGPA/J5PA Combat Camera)

As yet, either nobody knows, or they aren’t talking. The Department of National Defence insists it has not collected information specifically about women’s combat experience in Afghanistan, and has no definite plans to do so. Commendable, in a superficial way, but is that truly a responsible option when considering the life-and-death situations infantry soldiers may find themselves in?

In a written response to FrontLine’s inquiry looking for data, DND sent the following “politically-correct” answer: “Participation on operations is based on the physical and mental ability of soldiers. Those who can successfully complete the requisite work-up training can deploy on operations and this process does not include gender considerations.”

As has become the norm over the last decade, there is better information available about virtually any CF topic from Canadian allies than from the Department of National Defence. A 2009 UK report, ‘Women in Ground Close Combat Roles’ said: “In recent consultation with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Subject Matter Experts, and Analysts in the Canadian Army Lessons Learned Centre, it has been reported that there have been no gender-related issues arising from current expeditionary operations, or awareness of evidence that gender integration has had a negative effect on operational performance or team cohesion. In practice, adjustments are made to accommodate the successful functioning of mixed-gender units in operations, but in most cases problems are resolved ‘on the ground’.” In other words, the Canadian military may not have formal research but, as of 2009, it had nothing negative to report.

The Canadian military leadership has at least one good reason not to collect such information. The complete integration of women in every part of the Canadian military is no longer optional. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the integration of women in the Canadian Forces within ten years, and the armed forces followed orders. In DND’s words, “Combat Related Employment for Women (CREW) trials began in the mid 1980s and integration has been part of the combat arms trades since the early ’90s. The Army has been operating successfully in a gender neutral environment for a generation and, as such, does not conduct gender based research.”

In the words of the UK report, “As the CF has not applied any gender-based restrictions on employment since 1989, from a policy perspective the integration of women into the combat arms is now considered a fait accompli. Thus, they consider that there is no formal requirement to continue monitoring the effects of gender integration on operational performance or team cohesion, because the principle is no longer considered to be an issue.”

In the Canadian forces, every job is open to people who meet the standard of the job. The job standards that infantry soldiers meet are based on training followed by testing. Women earned the right to fight in Afghanistan alongside other Canadian soldiers by passing a series of tests, including some specific to the challenges they faced in theatre. But none of those tests could measure the ability to sustain months of activity in a combat zone.

Are many women choosing an infantry role, or are most more comfortable with non-lethal options to serve their country? Good question, maybe, but not politically correct.

2012 Photo – Naval boarding party members onboard HMCS Regina conduct a small arms exercise while deployed in the Arabian Sea on. (Photo: Cpl Rick Ayer, Halifax, NS)

Reality Check
Canada is justifiably proud of its position as a world leader in the promotion and ­protection of women’s rights and gender equality. Yet, are there some areas where such integration is just not realistic? Is this politically-correct gender-neutral requirement facing reality when it comes to the infantry? Is it a blind policy that could put lives at risk? Is it even possible for anyone in authority to ask those important questions without inviting accusations of discrimination? Does honesty have a place in this politically-correct world? Can a woman ask those questions without being labelled a traitor to her sex?

U.S. Marine Corps Captain Katie Petronio passed similar tests. But, by her own estimation, she has failed in theatre. An athlete in college, and a high scorer in USMC training, Capt Petronio wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette this summer, “At 5 feet 3 inches I was squatting 200 pounds and benching 145 pounds when I graduated in 2007. Five years later, I am physically not the woman I once was and my views have greatly changed on the possibility of women having successful long careers while serving in the infantry. I can say from firsthand experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not just emotion, that we haven’t even begun to analyze and comprehend the gender-specific medical issues and overall physical toll continuous combat operations will have on females.”

Photo: Leading Seaman Larissa Close fires a .50 cal heavy machine gun during a gun crew training serial on board HMCS St. John’s. (Cpl Malcolm Byers, MARPAC Imaging Services)

A 10-month deployment in Iraq left Capt Petronio with injuries due to carrying a full combat load, but her time in Afghanistan was worse. “By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability.”

Capt Petronio wrote that it was clear to her that, while everyone experienced stress and muscular deterioration, the rate of hers was “noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further ­compounded by gender-specific medical conditions.” In the article, she makes it clear that women can hold their own in combat. Her question is one of longevity. “Can women endure the physical and physiological rigors of sustained combat operations,” she bravely asks, “and are we willing to accept the attrition and medical issues that go along with integration?”

True, Capt Petronio’s personal testimony is the subjective experience of one woman. However credible her story, she herself points out there is little data on female attrition rates or medical problems of women during prolonged combat operations. In the absence of other information, a single data point can assume a level of importance that is out of proportion to its true significance.

Although the push has indeed been on to bring more women into the military, but how many are choosing the infantry over some of the lesser strength-and-stamina oriented, or less lethal options? It would be interesting to know just how much choice they are allowed, and how many choose yet fail the testing phase.

Incomplete Research?
Defence Research and Development Canada is studying impacts of service in Afghanistan on all Canadian military members. However, if it were true research, they would include gender as a category. According to DND, while the research is still at an early stage, the current priority areas are: care for ill, injured, fallen and their families; mental health; and, indivi­dual training and education modernization. However, there is hope. “Depending on the data,” DND wrote, “gender may be an element influencing the direction of the study.”

In the case of women, scientific data not only could compile facts about women’s participation in the most basic element of war-fighting – the small infantry unit – it should and undoubtedly has an obligation to do so.

If the data shows their performance and stamina were equal to men’s, it justifies and validates decades of hard work and struggle. On the other hand, if women suffered a disproportionate number of injuries, then research and study could show whether equipment needs to be modified, combat loads lightened, or training changed to address the physical challenges.

Real women, it seems, want answers not political rhetoric. In her thesis proposal, Royal Military College doctoral candidate Krystel Carrier-Sabourin wrote, “A significant research gap exists concerning the experiences of women serving in the Canadian Forces (CF), particularly with regards to the combat and ‘combat-like’ experiences of female CF members deployed to operational theaters in the twenty-first century.”

With a decade of combat experience in Afghanistan, and the frontline service of hundreds of women, Canada can choose to fill that research gap and measure their success.  

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
Chris MacLean is FrontLine’s Editor-in-Chief.
© FrontLine Defence 2012