Guest article: “Women in Combat?” by Andrew P. O’Meara Jr., Colonel, United States Army (retired)… In the context of moral injury and PTSD, do we really want to send mothers into combat?

by | Feb 14, 2013

FILE – In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan. (AP
VC Photo
Viet Cong Women in Combat

Fox News Poll: Majority of voters favor women in combat

Published February 11, 2013

“The decision last month by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to allow women in ground-combat roles may have surprised the public. But since the draft ended in 1973, the Pentagon has been steadily expanding the role of women — who now make up 14 percent of our armed forces — across all of the services. Women were progressively integrated into the regular forces as the Pentagon dismantled the gender-segregated units that had existed at least since World War II. “
Introduction by Steve Sparks
Are we really thinking this through when recognizing the life after war multi generational implications of mothers nurturing children?
In the short article below, Andy O’Meara, a retired US Army Colonel, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Class of 1959, and highly decorated Vietnam Veteran; makes an excellent argument for thinking twice about sending soldiers into combat, especially women who nurture our children at the beginning of their lives. Military spouses and children already suffer the consequences of war when fathers and mothers come home to life after war. Secondary PTSD is already a multi-generational problem affecting countless family members and loved ones of veterans who served in 20th and 21st Century wars fighting in combat roles.  Colonel O’Meara’s article does make me take a deep breath and think more about sending women into more direct and risky combat. I worry most about children of parents with PTSD. I am reminded each day of my own toxic family culture while growing up in a post WWII military family circumstance. We need to figure out ways to mitigate the terrible and destructive symptoms of PTSD that can last a lifetime. Changing our policy of sending women into combat seems to have the potential of creating a bigger problem for society. We really need to think about the broader implications of the intergenerational damage war does to the souls of our sons and daughters; and  brothers and sisters in war and make thoughtful decisions about policy changes.  The following article is about future generations of children…
Steve Sparks
Reconciliation: A Son’s Story


Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr.

  • Andrew O’Meara graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Class of 1959. He retired as a U.S. Army Colonel
Women in Combat?
Andrew P. O’Meara Jr.
Colonel, United States Army (Retired)
I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve been there and done that; and it’s no picnic. I share the following recollections of combat and its impact upon soldiers reluctantly, because it is still painful to share bitter memories. I do so because it is important that we heed the hard lessons of close combat.
A recent email message by a female Marine commissioned officer (1) provides reasons why assigning women to infantry units is not a good idea. She is absolutely right. Her assessment of the problem is excellent. She points out the physical differences between men and women that are here to stay. And they don’t make life easier, if the infantry squad has a woman on two in its ranks. I will not attempt to restate her case. However, I will share her observations of Israeli experience with women in combat that has been catastrophic, leading to much higher casualties in the combat units concerned.
The Viet Cong, our old adversary, used women in combat, but only at the local militia level (village). Regional VC guerrilla units didn’t incorporate women in their ranks. During combat operations to clear tunnels in the Iron Triangle in 1963, the mechanized infantry unit I was advising discovered the rosters of units in the local area. The local VC guerrillas had two or three women in most squads. The above photo shows Vietnamese women undergoing training for combat. The North Vietnamese Army had women in its ranks, but only in support roles as has been the case in the U.S. military.
My problem with women in combat is that it changes people in ways that are detrimental to the individual and society. The impact of combat is directly proportional to the intensity and duration of combat.  Individuals who are more sensitive appear to be at higher risk of suffering lasting psychological harm. During battle most soldiers bury the memories too horrible to remember; the subconscious buries the horror at depths beyond our reach. Those who come out of battle after long service in line units with many fire fights during many campaigns are hardened. Soldiers of long and hard fighting often return from war without emotions. Many are hard as rocks emotionally. And those who eventually exhibit symptoms of PTSD are incapable of nurturing; they can’t parent.
After about twenty years many hardened veterans experience symptoms of flashbacks and dreams of combat, when suppressed memories of battle begin to break free of their suppression. Our experience with professional soldiers suggests that the subconscious can no longer suppress the stuff we couldn’t live with after a period that may last as long as twenty years or more. By the time we realize we have PTSD, we are eaten up with anger and have made a mess of parenting.
That’s the problem with women in combat. Their children will have mothers incapable of nurturing. And it’s not her or their fault. And the next generation will be hurt forever. That’s why the Spartans never permitted their women to be warriors; although, they were plenty tough. They placed the frail or handicapped infants outside the village to die, because their society required all males to be warriors and mothers to be capable of child rearing.
I probably should have been a professor of English literature or history at some small town in the middle of nowhere. My first love was English literature followed closely by history. Upon graduation from high school, I had a scholarship to Yale; but my father insisted I take the exams for the Academy as well. I was awarded an appointment to the Academy, which he insisted I take. Turns out I loved the Army and service with American soldiers. But after thirty years of soldiering I was hardened; and I had PTSD.
In my heart of hearts I suspect I was ill equipped by temperament for slaughter and killing. I did my share of killing, especially during my service in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR). The Regiment was commanded by Colonel George S. Patton, III, a great trainer and aggressive leader. The Regiment was a great team and conducted combat operation that inflicted massive casualties on the enemy during Patton’s tenure of command. The team included USAF tactical air and Army artillery that together inflicted heavy casualties upon our opponents. Patton thrived on taking the war to the communists, who had invaded South Vietnam. We killed many, to include Patton and his command group. Most enemy casualties were inflicted using air strikes and artillery, but many were inflicted in close combat with side arms.
I served as Patton’s intelligence officer. I was responsible for developing hard intelligence on the enemy, which resulted in targeting and pitched battles. In my judgment, the service in the 11th ACR didn’t cause my later problem with PTSD. I was already filled with anger at the North Vietnamese soldiers as a result of my earlier tour of duty as an ARVN advisor. Our opponents in Vietnam killed their opponents without mercy, resulting in massive atrocities unreported by the media. As a result I experienced the loss of friends, who were killed or maimed. In the case of the Vietnamese soldiers their families were targeted as well, resulting in the slaughter of entire villages. By the time of my second tour of duty, I had no fear, a symptom of suppressed emotions (PTSD).
Make no mistake. During my soldiering I saw no atrocities committed by our soldiers. Although we fought hard, we fought in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. Despite our aggressiveness in combat, we treated prisoners well; and we were rewarded with vital information. I personally observed numerous young North Vietnamese soldiers after their capture, who willingly offered information. Many had no stomach for combat. They had gone to war at gun point. Their willingness to share information on their former units ended abruptly, when they entered a POW camp that effectively returned them to Communist control by enemy cadre. My experience with VC was different. Those, who managed to survive the Tet Offensive, were tough veterans. During my service with the 11th ACR, the VC normally refused to cooperate during interrogations, if they lived long enough to become a prisoner. They earned our respect as determined fighters.
I never had a bad dream about killing communists, but the loss of our brave troops broke my heart. And I suppressed it all forever; but it didn’t last. I had to suppress it to do my duty. Had I permitted myself to grieve and dwell on the dead and dying, I wouldn’t have been ready for the next fight, which was tonight or tomorrow. But suppressed memories return; and many veterans ended up with PTSD, which was my experience. Close combat, especially over extended periods, changes us in ways that destroy both long term memory, as well as our emotions. Those suffering from PTSD after long periods of combat are emotionally dead and incapable of nurturing – parenting. We know this from long experience.
Our children don’t need mothers filled with hatred for communists, or Muslim terrorists, or any enemy period. They will be incapable of nurturing; and they will fail as mothers. The Spartans knew that, but we as so PC we are going to make political points by selling out the unborn children of our children’s children. We have already spent them into debt; now it is apparent that the current Administration will give away their right to have loving mothers. It’s irresponsible. It’s wrong; and our society will end up paying a terrible price for short term political gains to learn what the IDF has learned the hard way.
Andrew P. O’Meara Jr.
Colonel, United States Army (Retired)

1)  “Some advice on women in combat from a female veteran.”  Full text of posting dated January 27, 2013 by Jazz Shaw, available by request

About the author

Steve Sparks is a retired information technology sales and marketing executive with over 35 years of industry experience, including a Bachelors’ in Management from St. Mary’s College. His creative outlet is as a non-fiction author, writing about his roots as a post-WWII US Navy military child growing up in the 1950s-1960s.
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