Mountain Top resident and U.S. Army veteran Joanne Powell-Smith supports the Pentagon's lifting of a ban on women serving in combat – with a caveat.
They have to have the same standards for men as women, said Powell-Smith, who left the Army as a captain and now works as a field examiner for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Those standards include physical requirements to carry heavy loads, complete obstacle courses and spend durations in the field without running water or hot meals.
Powell-Smith said women have flown planes and helicopters on combat missions and traveled with combat units as medics. I spent time in Afghanistan, and at times women are just as actively involved in combat as men, said Powell-Smith, 45. I think it's about time they lift the ban. There are many women who are capable and able to perform the same tasks as men.
Exeter combat Marine veteran James Norton disagrees with the change, citing a long list of concerns over the addition of women on the front line.
For example, combat soldiers must carry an extra 50 to 60 pounds of armor, weapons, ammunition and bare essentials and be prepared to lift or drag another injured soldier with that same additional baggage out of harm's way, he said. One of his combat buddies was more than 6 feet tall and 220 pounds – 270 pounds with added gear.
You have to get guys out of a situation, whether you lift him onto your shoulder or drag him by his shoulders, said Norton, 28, who was honorably discharged in June 2011 as a Marine corporal.
His combat units have set up bases in an abandoned barn in Iraq and mud huts in abandoned Afghanistan villages that wouldn't accommodate separate sleeping and showering areas for women. He's had to go two months without a shower and questions whether women could adjust to that.
Norton also foresees relationship issues surfacing and interfering with missions, and problems with female combat soldiers interacting with Middle East villagers who won't culturally accept women in authoritative roles.
He made a pledge he would kill himself before he is taken as a prisoner of war, he said, and said women would have to accept the possibility of rape as torture if they're captured. He also wonders if women would be forced to register for service and accept combat duty if a draft is enacted.
He said he's not completely against females in combat zones and proposes all-female combat battalions or platoons that would address some of his concerns. That could be an option as long as they meet standards, said Norton. But to mix and match men and women who fight, I don't think it's a great idea. We're there to fight wars.
Clyde Peters, a Vietnam veteran from Plymouth, said many issues must be resolved, but he believes the change will ultimately benefit the nation's defense. I think women are stronger than men in many ways, he said.
He referred to a recent television program in which two men struggled in pain as they were hooked up to machines that simulated labor contractions for two hours.
Many women have to go through labor 18 hours, and they're worried about women being in combat zones? I'm sure they can put up with a couple of men in a bunker with them, said Peters, who receive two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in battle.
Peters said everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I've seen grown men cry in combat. You have loss of life and friendship. Who doesn't cry over that? What's the difference if it's a man or woman?
He supports fair and justified minimum combat standards that are the same for both women and men. He was 5 feet, 7 inches and 122 pounds in Vietnam and carried loads of up to 100 pounds through jungles.
The biggest hurdle he sees is changing perceptions of many Americans that men handle physical battles. In America, we've always relied on men to fight wars, he said. I think the change is way overdue.
He said women have died in battle.
About 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel are women. More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations at war. More than 6,600 U.S. service members have been killed in these battles – 152 women.
Luzerne County Veterans Affairs Director James Spagnola said cohabitation is a major issue that must be addressed.
He served on a nuclear fast-attack submarine with the U.S. Navy in the 1980s. The men had a communal shower area and slept in the same section in stacked sleeping compartments with curtains as the only privacy.
Our average deployment was 60 days out to sea, and it's a very stressful and physically and mentally demanding assignment, he said. It's a very confined and isolated space, and adding women creates one more issue that the crew will have to deal with.
Spagnola said he wants to see how the Navy will handle concerns before declaring the change good or bad.
I don't totally support it, he said. It remains to see how successful they are.