Women in combat: One soldier's story

Friday, January 25, 2013 - 9:43am

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In her senior year at West Point, Candace Fisher decided she wanted to join the Military Police since it would allow her the most options "to do the most soldier-like things," Fisher recalled in an interview with CNN.

In 2006 and 2007, Fisher served at what would become Combat Outpost Keating, one of the most dangerous bases in Afghanistan. Fisher - who then went by her maiden name, Mathis - led a platoon of Military Police, supervising 36 troops, including six other women, attached to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 71st Cavalry.

With Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announcing today that the Pentagon would end its policy of excluding women from combat positions, Fisher - reached at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks, where she is currently a small group leader for an officer leadership course - said the Army was acknowledging what has already in many ways become a reality in the military.

"It's a formalization of what we've been experimenting with the last ten to twelve years in Iraq and Afghanistan," Fisher told CNN. "I think that those two conflicts have probably given the Army a pretty good idea of whether or not an actual policy change was warranted."

Even though Fisher is Military Police and not Infantry or Cavalry, she says "given the nature of the fight over the last ten years or so, it's made us all very dependent on each other as far as branches, interdependent as far as combined action and combined arms. So there has been a lot of bleed-over for missions regardless of what branch you are based on the conflict."

During one mission in October 2006, Fisher and her MPs were teamed up with Able Troop's 3rd platoon when they had to push through a complex ambush. The female MPs returned fire along with the male soldiers. Actually, one male soldier recalled, with their AT-4 grenade launchers, the MPs had stronger firepower than the scout platoon.

Fisher, 30, speculates that had the ban on women serving in combat missions happened before she chose the Military Police, "maybe the 22 year old gung-ho me would have" applied to serve in a combat unit. "But at this point I'm really happy with the choice I made. It's great that those opportunities are going to be there for future women soldiers," she said.

She takes criticisms of the policy change seriously. Of those who say women don't have the upper body strength to serve in combat roles, Fisher said, "I think that's one of the reasons that Secretary Panetta is allowing the branches the time to do their analysis and give their feedback, because I'm sure that is a concern." She personally doesn't "have the upper body strength that a man does," Fisher says, but "I do know some females out there who are exceptional athletes who can certainly hold their own with their male counterparts. So I think that whatever those branches decide needs to be their standard in order to facilitate their mission."

Regardless of a soldier's gender, what matters is that he or she can meet the standard, Fisher says.

Before Fisher and her MP platoon were deployed to what would become Combat Outpost Keating, one officer recalls, there was concern about sending female soldiers to the frontlines of the conflict. Fisher and her soldiers "were manning the same machine guns on patrols as our CAV scouts, which our senior leaders did not like," the officer recalls. Then those concerns turned into ones about possible "General Order 1" violations - intimate relations between unmarried troops. There were myriad rumors of such prohibited contact.

In terms of fraternization, Fisher says, "people are always going to have those concerns, and whenever you get groups of people together, there's always either going to be that perception or there's going to be the few that do violate those types of policies... I don't think it's going to be enough to detract from the mission."

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