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First woman to lead in combat 'thrilled' with change

By Michael Biesecker

Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 05:04 a.m. HST, Jan 25, 2013


RALEIGH, N.C. » Former U.S. Army Capt. Linda L. Bray says her male superiors were incredulous upon hearing she had ably led a platoon of military police officers through a firefight during the 1989 invasion of Panama.

Instead of being lauded for her actions, the first woman in U.S. history to lead male troops in combat said higher-ranking officers accused her of embellishing accounts of what happened when her platoon bested an elite unit of the Panamanian Defense Force. After her story became public, Congress fiercely debated whether she and other women had any business being on the battlefield.

The Pentagon's longstanding prohibition against women serving in ground combat ended Thursday, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that most combat roles jobs will now be open to female soldiers and Marines. Panetta said women are integral to the military's success and will be required to meet the same physical standards as their male colleagues.

"I'm so thrilled, excited. I think it's absolutely wonderful that our nation's military is taking steps to help women break the glass ceiling," said Bray, 53, of Clemmons, N.C. "It's nothing new now in the military for a woman to be right beside a man in operations."

The end of the ban on women in combat comes more than 23 years after Bray made national news and stoked intense controversy after her actions in Panama were praised as heroic by Marlin Fitzwater, the spokesman for then-President George H.W. Bush.

Bray and 45 soldiers under her command in the 988th Military Police Company, nearly all of them men, encountered a unit of Panamanian special operations soldiers holed up inside a military barracks and dog kennel.

Her troops killed three of the enemy and took one prisoner before the rest were forced to flee, leaving behind a cache of grenades, assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, according to Associated Press news reports published at the time. The Americans suffered no casualties.

Citing Bray's performance under fire as an example, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., introduced a bill to repeal the law that barred female U.S. military personnel from serving in combat roles.

But the response from the Pentagon brass was less enthusiastic.

"The responses of my superior officers were very degrading, like, 'What were you doing there?'" Bray said. "A lot of people couldn't believe what I had done, or did not want to believe it. Some of them were making excuses, saying that maybe this really didn't happen the way it came out."

Schroder's bill died after top generals lobbied against the measure, saying female soldiers just weren't up to the physical rigors of combat.

"The routine carrying of a 120-pound rucksack day in and day out on the nexus of battle between infantrymen is that which is to be avoided and that's what the current Army policy does," Gen. M.R. Thurman, then the head of the U.S. Southern Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

For Bray, the blowback got personal.

The Army refused to grant her and other female soldiers who fought on the ground in Panama the Combat Infantryman Badge. She was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Valor, an award for meritorious achievement in a non-combat role.

Bray was also the subject of an Army investigation over allegations by Panamanian officials that she and her soldiers had destroyed government and personal property during the invasion that toppled Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

Though eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, the experience soured Bray on the Army. In 1991, she resigned her commission after eight years of active duty and took a medical discharge related to a training injury.

Today's military is much different from the one Bray knew, with women already serving as fighter pilots, aboard submarines and as field supervisors in war zones. But some can't help but feel that few know of their contributions, said Alma Felix, 27, a former Army specialist.

"We are the support. Those are the positions we fill and that's a big deal — we often run the show — but people don't see that," Felix said. "Maybe it will put more females forward and give people a sense there are women out there fighting for our country. It's not just you're typical poster boy, GI Joes doing it."

Spc. Heidi Olson, a combat medic, received a purple heart for injuries she suffered when an IED exploded in Afghanistan last May.

"It makes it official now," Olson said. "We don't have to do the back door way of getting out into a combat zone."

Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego and staff photographer Ted Warren in Seattle contributed to this report.







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toomuchpilikia wrote:
Combat is not for everyone....including men! We need to develop a criteria during basic training that will separate the individuals that are combat ready. A combat soldier needs to know that the person next to them....man or woman is ready to take a life without hesitation!
on January 25,2013 | 05:06AM
DA_HANDSOME_CHINAMAN wrote:
Charliegrunt, you are absolutely right. They just don't understand because they were not there. Were you thrilled like the Capt. said?
on January 25,2013 | 10:27AM
Charliegrunt wrote:
Combat Infantryman Badges (CIB) are awarded to those who have been assigned infantry Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), who engage the enemy in combat in a combat zone. As an MP, Bray did not meet those qualifications. Being a combat infantryman is not for everyone as "toomuchpilikia" commented. To the infantryman in combat, the most important criteria is "Are you going to help me get home alive or are you going to get me killed?" If it's the latter, you'll probably be coming home in a body bag. If they can't trust you to cover their back or flanks, don't expect them to cover yours. If you can't keep up, you get left behind. No one is going to jeopardize a whole fire team, squad, platoon or company because of one laggard, unless that person is wounded. Like it or not, those are the realities of combat. Are there women who can meet those criteria? I would say there are. Would they like it? I doubt it. We got clean clothes every five days and resupplies every three days, IF we were not in contact and weather permitting. Otherwise we used our tee shirts to take a bath and do our laundry simultaneously. You use your entrenching tool to dig a hole to take care of bodily functions OUTSIDE the perimeter. They're welcome to try it, as long as Panetta keeps his word that there will be no loosening of standards. I wonder if that includes dismissal from the service under LESS THAN HONORABLE CONDITIONS, if they couldn't cut it, like we did with the men?
on January 25,2013 | 07:09AM
krusha wrote:
Pretty much every country have women serving in combat roles, so nothing new there. Women are just as capable as men if given the same training.
on January 25,2013 | 07:50AM
mrluke wrote:
Let's see how "thrilled" she is the first time she hears a shot fired in anger. I know I wasn't thrilled at all.
on January 25,2013 | 08:14AM
DA_HANDSOME_CHINAMAN wrote:
"I'm so thrilled, excited. I think it's absolutely wonderful that our nation's military is taking steps to help women break the glass ceiling," said Bray, 53, of Clemmons, N.C. "It's nothing new now in the military for a woman to be right beside a man in operations." When I was in Vietnam going on patrols, I sure the "hell" wasn't thrilled. Try carrying that heavy rucksade, weapon and then some, sneaking through the bush, then you can tell me you're thrilled. Seems she had an easy time, "Just one time" don't cut it. Try doing it regularly. Women, PLEASE WAKE UP!
on January 25,2013 | 10:22AM
daniwitz13 wrote:
This plan to put Women on the battle front is so wrong. Men are put into battle, not that they want to, but because they have to. Someone has to fight for the Country and Men are by Nature better equipped. Killing people is NOT a desirable task and even Men have trouble with it. So for a Woman to WANT to be in a position to kill other people put them in a different light. We are not discussing here about a simple JOB. It is a kill or be killed task. No Married Man would be in favor of putting his Wife in that type of environment. To make a drastic point, and if that is what they claim is their equal ability, let the Women go to the front lines and let the Men be support. Men have ALWAYS gone to do the task, then now let the Women ALWAYS do the battles and the Men be back-up and support. That is if they are capable as they claim and W
on January 25,2013 | 12:07PM
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