Former POW Shoshana Johnson: The Military Is Keeping Women Down

The military's ban on women in combat jobs is absurd, Johnson says, because women are already in combat, fighting alongside men—but without the recognition or the promotions to top jobs. For more on this debate, visit our Women in the World summit.

The Pentagon says women can’t fight on the front lines of war, a policy that has long been hard to swallow for female soldiers. As a former prisoner of war in Iraq, I can tell you that I fought. I fired my weapon. I got swarmed by the enemy, kicked in the head and gut, and taken prisoner. So did Jessica Lynch and Lori Ann Piestewa, two fellow female soldiers in my unit. Lori gave her life.

Recently the Pentagon proposed easing its restrictions on women in combat, allowing women to serve in non-infantry battalion jobs, such as tank mechanics and radio operators—but still not on the front lines. Of course, we already are on the front lines. There are no clearly defined lines of combat anymore. I was a cook in the Army; Jessica and Lori were supply clerks. We got caught in a deadly ambush at the start of the war in Iraq. That’s the front line.

In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of attention focused on the policy change for women in combat, including at this week’s presidential debate. Opinions are flying. Some say the military is right: Women should not be fighting on the front lines. But these people don’t understand what it means to be a female, much less a female in the military.

The typical reasons cited for maintaining the current military policy are rape, injury, and the most condescending, and quite frankly, insulting: a female’s ability to do the job. I must clarify some of these misconceptions.

First, rape. This is generally the go-to reason to deny women their rightful place alongside men. Let me first say that rape is a crime, not a justification. Rape is something that most women have worried about since puberty (and unfortunately, some before that). Thousands of women are raped every year in this country. Females ranging in age from 18 months to 70 years old have experienced the traumatic criminal act of rape, and they weren’t in the middle of a war. So why do we jump to the idea of rape when we discuss women and the military?

Yes, there is rape in the military, just as there is in civilian life. There is rape at home on military bases all over the United States, and also abroad. Being barred from combat jobs hasn’t kept it from happening. I spent three weeks in the hands of the “enemy” in Iraq as a prisoner, and I was not raped. Unfortunately, many of my fellow female soldiers were raped—sometimes by the very people who were supposed to “have their back.” Rape happens every day to women; giving women front-line combat jobs will not increase that threat.

Here’s an idea: Why don’t we educate men, to make it clear that rape—since we are all aware that it is a crime—is also an act of betrayal, one that disgraces the uniform, the military, and society. Why don’t we punish those who commit the crime, and those who say nothing when they are informed of the crime? Instead of suggesting that women refrain from certain jobs, we must make men understand that they have no right to take what has not been given.

Injury and death are the next biggest concerns. Jessica, Lori, and I were all in a support jobs, and that didn’t stop us from being injured or dying. So, tell me, exactly where is the safety in “non-combat” jobs during war? There is none. It’s war! So, if we are dying, losing limbs, and becoming prisoners like men, why are women being kept out of combat roles? Because keeping women out of these jobs is another way to keep the glass ceiling in place. Those who serve in combat jobs have a higher likelihood of getting the top positions in the military. It is a rarity to have a non-combat individual serve as a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This makes it nearly impossible for a woman to even compete for a position that she may be more than qualified to hold.

The last point of contention is the ability of females to physically do the job. Really? Are we having this argument? Physical strength is different for every man and woman. There are men who have no upper body strength and pencil legs, just like there are women with bigger biceps than some men. Unbiased training will eliminate those who cannot do the job, whether female or male.

What it comes down to is that women have been fighting from the beginning of time. Who kept farms running and children fed when the men went off to fight each other? Women were fighting in their own way. From birth, we have fought for our voice to be heard, for our contribution to be acknowledged, to live in a world without fear. Now we fight alongside the men in war. The recent policy change is a step in accomplishing the equality we have long been denied—but it’s not a big enough step. I will not hide my strength. I am not going to the back of the bus.