By Elise Kaplan
— Veteran Stacia King Sakya remembers banter with her military colleagues about women serving in combat roles. But in 2001, it was a wish, not a reality.
“One of the sergeants was like, ‘We don’t want to see our wives, mothers, sisters being killed in combat,’ ” she says. “For me, I don’t want to see my brother killed in combat. I don’t want to see a bunny get hit by a car, but it happens.’”
On Jan. 24, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the Pentagon would open 230,000 combat positions for women in the military by 2016. Some positions may be available as soon as this May.
Sakya, who lives in Albuquerque, says the announcement represents a huge leap forward and will allow women to advance their careers. She is ecstatic, despite having left the armed forces in 2007. “I kind of wish I was younger and back in the same mentality that I was when I joined, because it would’ve been a whole different experience,” she says. “I’m excited for the women that are going into the military now. It will give just more opportunities for someone to stretch themselves and grow.”
Sakya says she joined the Navy at age 18 out of a sense of duty to her country, a desire to travel, and a need to push herself to her limits. “I signed on the dotted line,” she says. “It’s my choice, too, if I decide I want to put myself on the frontline and be killed for my country.” She adds that wanted the chance to contribute as much as possible.
The crews she worked on in the Navy varied in gender composition from predominately female or predominately male to an equal mix. In Sigonella, Sicily, as part of the security forces, she says she had very few female colleagues. A riot outside the base was the closest she got to physical danger while in the military. “That was the first time I realized I may have to hurt somebody—or kill them,” she says. “When that reality clicked in my head it was like, This is the real deal right now. Not just me in Sicily drinking wine, eating pizza and discotheque-ing. This is what I’m here for.”
Combat positions remain a crucial step to promotions, and lifting the ban will give women the chance to move higher up the ranks. Opponents to the decision worry that women do not possess the physical strength and could serve as distractions to the men in the unit.
Another concern lies with recent reports finding that one in three women have been sexually assaulted while serving in the military. Sakya says these assaults often are a result of predatory attitudes of power and control, and are happening whether or not women are serving on battlegrounds with men. “It’s already there. I’m not being naive and saying la di da it’s going to be a good time for everyone involved. Of course there’s going to be friction.”
Women have been barred from the infantry, tank units and commando units, but many have been directly involved in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 12 years: 130 have been killed.
“I think a lot of these women are in combat already by the nature of what they’re doing. So I’d rather have one trained and out there than someone just dodging bullets,” Sakya says. “I’ve heard some of them have actually taken lead roles because they’re in the middle of combat. You just ante up and do it.”