Women Should Not Be in Combat (Says a Female Marine Captain)

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Complementarian Christians are the most pro-women people around. We love women. We rejoice in them. We celebrate them. Many of us in actual terms are “them,” of course!

We know that God has created them with dignity and worth. We know that their structure and form display his ingenuity and creativity in a way that men do not, because men and women are fundamentally different (though we share much, naturally and spiritually). We want women to flourish and thrive and do things that they enjoy and are suited for.

The decision by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to place women in the front lines of military combat is an anti-woman decision. It seems “pro-woman,” but it’s not. It will put women in situations that are not suited to them. It places them, in unprecedented terms, in harm’s way. This will mean untold bodily damage, continual physical suffering, and a hugely increased risk of death.

These are my convictions, working from a biblical foundation (I laid out some thoughts for Christianity Today here). But don’t take my word for it; consider the testimony of a captain in the Marine Corps, a woman named Katie Petronio. Petronio is a graduate of my alma mater, Bowdoin College. She was the captain of the nationally ranked women’s hockey team during her college years; after them, she placed fourth in her class in Officer Candidates School.

Think about this:

  • When she entered the military, Petronio was ardently for women in combat
  • She could bench almost 150 pounds (very impressive)
  • She scored a 292 out of 300 on the Marine physical fitness test (truly a top-notch athlete)
  • She was in the top 20% of performers in Basic Training

We’re dealing here with a high-performer, an achiever, and a woman in peak shape. So what happened when she went to Afghanistan? Was she fine? Did she perform as well as she expected?

Sadly, her body essentially buckled. She became a different person, physically. Read this, all of it, for some perspective (it’s honestly hard to read if you care about the well-being of women):

[Due] to the excessive amount of time I spent in full combat load, I was diagnosed with a severe case of restless leg syndrome. My spine had compressed on nerves in my lower back causing neuropathy which compounded the symptoms of restless leg syndrome. While this injury has certainly not been enjoyable, Iraq was a pleasant experience compared to the experiences I endured during my deployment to Afghanistan. At the beginning of my tour in Helmand Province, I was physically capable of conducting combat operations for weeks at a time, remaining in my gear for days if necessary and averaging 16-hour days of engineering operations in the heart of Sangin, one of the most kinetic and challenging AOs in the country. There were numerous occasions where I was sent to a grid coordinate and told to build a PB from the ground up, serving not only as the mission commander but also the base commander until the occupants (infantry units) arrived 5 days later. In most of these situations, I had a sergeant as my assistant commander, and the remainder of my platoon consisted of young, motivated NCOs. I was the senior Marine making the final decisions on construction concerns, along with 24-hour base defense and leading 30 Marines at any given time. The physical strain of enduring combat operations and the stress of being responsible for the lives and well-being of such a young group in an extremely kinetic environment were compounded by lack of sleep, which ultimately took a physical toll on my body that I couldn’t have foreseen.

By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability. It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions. At the end of the 7-month deployment, and the construction of 18 PBs later, I had lost 17 pounds and was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (which personally resulted in infertility, but is not a genetic trend in my family), which was brought on by the chemical and physical changes endured during deployment. Regardless of my deteriorating physical stature, I was extremely successful during both of my combat tours, serving beside my infantry brethren and gaining the respect of every unit I supported. Regardless, I can say with 100 percent assurance that despite my accomplishments, there is no way I could endure the physical demands of the infantrymen whom I worked beside as their combat load and constant deployment cycle would leave me facing medical separation long before the option of retirement. I understand that everyone is affected differently; however, I am confident that should the Marine Corps attempt to fully integrate women into the infantry, we as an institution are going to experience a colossal increase in crippling and career-ending medical conditions for females.

Is every woman in combat going to experience this? No. But was Petronio a top athlete, unusually well prepared for combat (scoring nearly perfectly on the overall fitness exam)? Absolutely.

What does this mean? Well, it tells us what common-sense and the Bible do: that women are not ideally suited for the front lines of combat. The US Government, led by the Obama administration and Secretary Panetta, is making a potentially disastrous move. Here’s the problem with so much feminist ideology and the decisions it animates: it purports to liberate women, to help them, but instead it grinds them down and harms them.

You think about abortion, and this is true. Many women suffer horribly in physical and emotional terms from abortion. It’s true about combat, too. The lifting of “restrictions” will not help women, it will lead them to suffer.

Many limitations, both for men and women, are good for us. In fact, this is true not only of sexuality, but all of life. We’re living in an age that marches under the banner of freedom. It was fascinating to me that leading novelist Jonathan Franzen titled his recent major book thusly, because Franzen shows from his own worldview that the spirit of our modern age has not liberated and freed many of us. It has harmed us.

(Spoiler alert!) Franzen makes this point through the almost impossibly poignant relationship between Walter and Patty. It is through reconciliation and love that the two flourish, not selfishly pursuing what the code of modern “freedom” (meaning in practical terms that there are no restraints on one’s desires or ability to pursue their fulfillment) dictates. Only when they come together, laying down vicious bitterness spawned by their own wills, are they able to be one, and to be happy. I’m getting chills as I write this, because Franzen makes his point with such literary mastery that it stuns the senses.

God’s way frees us, not Satan’s (and sin’s). Holiness is liberation; sin is enslavement. The gospel transforms us; our sinful nature conforms us to the pattern of death. Secular “freedom,” and the undoing of biblically-derived wisdom in the public square, leads only to misery and folly. Some things that may mistakenly appear “restrictive” (like not having women in combat) in fact are best for women, and lead to their flourishing. They literally don’t have to die. Their bodies do not have to suffer. Historically, men have taken on these burdens. They have done so not because war is good in itself, but because they want women and children–whether domestically or societally–to thrive.

This is what complementarians want. We see this very basic reality in Scripture: that men and women are different, and on average have different native physicality. We see, furthermore, that Jesus Christ makes war on the kingdom of darkness to save his bride (Ephesians 5:25).

We see these things, and we realize that God’s ways are not restrictive. Complementarian Christians, like the Lord himself, are not anti-woman. In humility and full recognition of our sin, we are the most pro-woman group there is. We love women, and want them to thrive, both in natural terms and in their walk with Christ.

Any other path is unwise; the call by men for women to fight in their place is the height of cowardice, and worthy of the strongest possible rebuke.

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  • Debbie with PCOS

    I hate to take this tone but this article is absurd. To infer that someone got PCOS because of excessive physical exertion over a long period of time simply proves the lack of understanding over PCOS. PCOS is also so poorly diagnosed that you can’t be sure no one in her family had it.

    It’s one thing to have a religious belief that women shouldn’t be in combat – but it’s a whole other thing to draw some convoluted conclusion that tours of duty can cause PCOS.

    You can’t have it both ways – freedom but you get to use the bible to dictate what people should be doing…

    • Cathy

      @Debbie,

      Nowhere does either Ostrachan or Captain Petronio infer that polycystic ovarian syndrome is caused or is even correlated with her military experience. Captain Petronio specifically states her military duties were compromised “by gender-specific medical conditions”, polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS. To read this article as a sustained argument of PCOS correlation let alone causation reveals more about the reader, or commenter, than the author. The correlation of PCOS mentioned is that Captain Petronio is female, something I don’t think even you can find an argument with.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    Owen, I have a sincere question for you regarding the public implications for your complementarian theology.

    How and when do you draw the line in advocating public policies that, to many women and others, restrict their equal opportunities? I understand with abortion that it is much easier, for you consider the rights of the unborn child as paramount. But are you suggesting that American public and military policy should reflect your understanding of women’s different roles? Of course private religious communities can legitimately have complementarian policies that restrict certain roles to men–but what is your rationale for urging this (if indeed you are) in the public policies of a liberal democracy?

    • Hanan

      >How and when do you draw the line in advocating public policies that, to many women and others, restrict their equal opportunities?

      In my opinion, this may be the wrong question to ask in the case of the military. Its not a matter of equal opportunities but what is the nature of the military is in the first place. I believe, the nature of the “combat” portion is to seek out, destroy or take over. The question should be is whether women in combat specifically, will be able to do accomplish what the military needs. Would a commanding officer rather send a unit of all women or all men to achieve a particular combat related mission? Wouldn’t a commanding officer always prefer to send more men then more women on a particular battle mission? Wouldn’t this open a flood-gate of discrimination lawsuits?

      • Brian Westley

        Personally, I’d want to send whoever is best qualified for that particular mission, and having a larger pool to choose from can only increase my choices.

  • Steve

    That woman truly has the spirit of a Marine. But she learned in the hardest way possible that it’s not about where you are when you come into the fight. It’s about what happens during the fight. The big bad truth is that most Infantrymen do not stay in the Infantry for 20 years. Every deployment sees units losing men because of unforeseen problems just like hers that debilitate them and leave them unqualified for combat duty. If we stopped sending men to war because they lost muscle mass and some of them endured physical problems for the rest of their lives, (Looking at you spine shortening Airborne…) we wouldn’t have a military at all. Every Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, and Marine, we all signed up knowing we might not come out so great on the other end. If we ignored it enough before we got to our units, there is always the top NCO to look at, with that limp they try really hard to hide. That grimace as they pass you even though they’re well out of their prime.

    All I’m trying to say is the idea that we should restrict women from combat lest they get hurt is kind of silly to an old infantryman, and I’m sure it’s a little insulting to a number of young women in the Military Police who joined the MP’s specifically because it was the closest they could get to combat arms. It sounds crazy I know, to want to run towards the fire, but if that’s what someone feels called to do, and they’re good at it, then what’s the problem?

  • Kasey

    I know you’re not going to want to hear this, but, women are already in combat. They have been since the first Gulf conflict. They have been flying fighter planes for two decades. They are MPs.

    Women deserve to the same opportunities as men, when available. Especially when they are already doing the work.

  • pagansister

    Great post—I especially like your last paragraph. :-)

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