Fighting with Gender: Understanding the Contemporary Combat Experiences of Servicewomen and Servicemen in the United States Military



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Since the integration of women into the United States armed forces, servicemen have been expected to be the fighters while servicewomen largely occupied safe or nurturing support roles as dictated by American society at large. The ground combat exclusion policy, which officially barred women from all positions involving ground fighting, limited women to support units which, in theory, were strategically located in the rear and far removed from the dangers of the front lines. As we experienced in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the differentiation of gender roles became irrelevant in asymmetrical wars with no established front lines. Female soldiers found themselves in a variety of combat situations of indirect and direct nature, as I learned through the qualitative interviews that I conducted at Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

In this dissertation, I examined the narratives of female and male soldiers who experienced combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, to discern: 1) whether females and males discussed their scenarios differently; 2) whether experiencing combat affected soldiers? ideas about their various gender roles; 3) whether perceptions on servicewomen?s combat participation differed by sex; and 4) whether soldiers? opinions on women?s inclusion in combat arms military occupation specialties differed by sex. What I found in my study was that: 1) female and male soldiers largely discussed their combat experiences in similar ways; 2) while familial gender roles were largely unchanged as a result of combat deployment, the majority of female and male soldiers perceived changes in their roles as women and men ? where women often discussed feeling stronger, empowered, and independent, and men often identified their changes in terms of maturity and personal growth; 3) that exposure to women?s roles in combat deployments had a more positive effect on the perceptions of male soldiers than those of female soldiers; and 4) that both female and male participants largely disagreed with the ground combat exclusion policy for women.