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Women on battlefield about more than equality

Since 1944, West Point has required cadets to pass its indoor obstacle course, a test of agility, stamina and strength that is designed to build warriors and determine whether they can meet the physical demands of combat.

When freshman Cadet Madaline Kenyon completed the course in 2 minutes 26 seconds in October, she scored the equivalent of an A-plus on the men’s scale and set a new female record. It was a stunning achievement.

Kenyon had planned to become an officer in the Army Medical Corps. After her performance on the obstacle course, the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, asked her: Why not the infantry?

As a woman, Kenyon cannot officially serve in infantry, armor, artillery or other jobs in combat. But her accomplishment comes at a time when the services have begun removing the last obstacle to women in the military.

In January 2013, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were ordered to study the feasibility of opening all military jobs to women by 2016. That would include more than 200,000 jobs that make up the core of the combat force in the Army and the Marine Corps.

Though the Joint Chiefs have expressed support, the success of women’s integration into combat units will depend on how quickly and enthusiastically officers and enlisted soldiers embrace it. Many servicemen resist the idea, citing studies that suggest the inclusion of women in combat would imperil unit effectiveness, good order and discipline.

Opponents of women in combat rightly argue that the military’s physical standards must not be compromised. If the Army expects an infantry soldier to walk 20 miles while hauling 50 pounds of equipment, this standard should apply regardless of gender.

My experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has convinced me that what the military would gain by including women in combat far outweighs any short-term compromises. Our country’s most recent conflicts have demonstrated that the military needs women on the battlefield.

During my patrols in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, I came to appreciate how much women could have contributed to my mission. Most Iraqi men were reticent to speak with us for fear of retribution from al-Qaida. Iraqi women, often fed up with the violence in their neighborhoods, could be persuaded to provide information, but first we had to bridge the gender gap, build rapport and earn their trust, all of which took valuable time.

Having women in our platoon would have dramatically increased our capability of eliciting critical intelligence. This could determine a mission’s success or failure, with lives in the balance.

Since 2011, U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan have embedded all-female cultural support teams in their units. The program has been lauded by commanders for gaining access to the 50 percent of the Afghan population who were previously inaccessible. Including women in front-line units would be more than an exercise in social equality; it would be a valuable enhancement of military effectiveness.

William Denn, an Army captain and intelligence officer, led soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a graduate student in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.