WASHINGTON – Hours after the Pentagon lifted the ban on women in combat, Valerie Warner typed out an email to her grandfather, Volney Warner, a retired four-star general who helped oversee the integration of women into the Army in the 1970s.
Valerie Warner, an Iraq combat veteran, excitedly laid out her detailed plan for incorporating women into infantry units.
A few hours later, her grandfather replied, writing, I remain convinced that women are better at giving life than taking it. He added that although women play an important role in the Army, he thinks that they have no place in combat units.
No family better captures the flurry of debate triggered by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s historic announcement Thursday than the Warners. The decision alters decades of military tradition and opens new opportunities for women and a new debate on their role in the military.
Four of Warner’s eight grandchildren – two of them women – have fought in the Iraq and Afghan wars. In 2005, one of his granddaughters, 1st Lt. Laura Walker, was leading her engineer unit in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb detonated beneath her vehicle and killed her. The 24-year-old was the first female U.S. Military Academy graduate to die in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Their family story shows the progress made by women in the military in the past decade. But it also highlights the significant ground women must still cover to win acceptance in the military’s last all-male bastions.
As a general commanding the 9th Infantry Division in the 1970s, Warner oversaw the integration of women into hundreds of non-combat arms-support jobs.
There was little time to prepare, he said. They just started to arrive.
Soon, he found himself officiating disputes over whether hair should be tucked under steel helmets and how to handle crying female soldiers. But after a few months, he decided that his initial doubts about the women were misplaced.
Their job performance was what surprised me, he said. The first group of women were better than the men. They really wanted to be there and knew they were part of an advanced guard.
Decades later, as a grandfather, he suggested that all of his grandchildren consider a career in the Army.
I encouraged them to take on something more important than themselves and told them the military is a good place to do it, he said in an interview Thursday.
Two granddaughters, Laura and Valerie, took his advice. They were smart, athletic and eager to prove that they were just as capable as their male counterparts. While Laura was at West Point, Valerie attended George Mason University and enrolled in ROTC.
Before the two deployed in 2004 – Laura to Afghanistan and Valerie to Iraq – Warner offered them advice: Follow in the tracks of those ahead of you. Keep a round in the chamber. Take care of your soldiers. Do not try to be a hero.
When he was a lieutenant in Korea in the 1950s, Warner and his men spent months in the bitter cold and endured killing on a scale far greater than the losses faced by U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan over the past decade. Under such conditions, he said, he is concerned that male soldiers would be more likely to worry about the safety of female soldiers. A gender-integrated infantry company, he said, would become a less effective killing machine.
A decade of combat has chipped away at the support for Warner’s stance inside the military. In Iraq and Afghanistan, female soldiers have operated heavy machine guns on Army trucks in combat and inflicted casualties on the enemy. They have led patrols to clear roads of buried bombs, one of the most dangerous missions in the military.
Valerie Warner, who left active duty as a first lieutenant in 2006 after her Iraq deployment, argued in the email to her grandfather that the Army should move slowly and ensure that the first group of female soldiers assigned to combat units has been tested in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I believe you want women who have actually been in a combat support role and who have fired a .50 (caliber machine gun) or been on dismounted operations to be the groundbreakers here, she wrote.