Photo: via AmericanSpecialOps.com
The Pentagon’s decision to give women the chance to serve in front-line combat drew mixed reactions Wednesday from female veterans.Veterans such as U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth — the first woman injured in combat to be elected to national office when the Democrat ousted former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh in November — applauded the move as a broadening of opportunities for women and said it will improve the nation’s armed forces. But several older veterans said most women are not physically strong enough to participate directly in combat.
Duckworth fought in Iraq with the Illinois Army National Guard as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, one of the few combat positions available to women at the time. She lost both her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade hit her helicopter in 2004.
The Pentagon’s decision overturns a 1994 ruling that banned women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
“The decision to allow women to serve in combat will allow the best man or woman on the front line to keep America safe,” Duckworth said in a statement Wednesday. “As a combat veteran, I know the inclusion of women in combat roles will make America safer and provide inspiration to women throughout our country.”
Lizette Rhone, president of the Chicago chapter of the Women’s Army Corps Veterans’ Association, served during World War II. She joined in 1943 hoping to be stationed overseas. But being African-American in the then-segregated military prohibited that and she instead filled an administrative role in Missouri, she said.
Rhone said some women would have jumped at the opportunity to serve in combat, even during World War II.
“I think it’s the type of career some women would look forward to,” said Rhone, 86. “Now, they have the opportunity to really just soar.”
Rhone and Duckworth said women have been serving in combat zones, unofficially, for years.
“You can’t believe that these women were in combat areas and never fired a gun and tried to protect themselves,” Rhone said. “We knew that (women) had been doing this.”
Two other female World War II veterans, however, said they aren’t comfortable with the idea of women serving in combat.
Yolanda Imhoff, 94, of Evanston, served as a sergeant in the Army Air Forces as a high-speed radio operator in Europe. She worries that women generally are not as strong as men and that women might be more vulnerable if captured.
“They did teach us how to practice shooting a gun,” Imhoff said about her time in service. “We did have that. But as far as any combat, I’m, being my age, and what I saw and went through, I’m not sure I think women should be in combat.”
Doris Dina, 88, of Chicago, also a World War II veteran, said she doesn’t think it’s a good idea for most women, but that it could work for some.
“I appreciate the fact that some women are strong and they can handle combat,” Dina said. “I think it would be good for them. But not for people like myself.”
David McArtin, of Round Lake, a 30-year Navy veteran, said it’s about time women serve in combat. He understands that some, like Imhoff, fear women will be subjected to abuse.
“That’s happening today,” McArtin said. “I think we need to accept these things will happen in combat. … And not every woman is going to say, ‘This is for me.’ Not everyone in America serves.”
Tribune reporter Lisa Black contributed.
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