The Pentagon recently lifted its archaic ban on women in the US army serving in combat, opening up hundreds of thousands of front line positions to anyone with a vagina, military training and the will to fight. Which is obviously great news. But is it really changing women's roles in war rather than their representation? Fourteen percent of the US military is already made up of women, many of whom have been placed in positions of combat endless times before, because – and I know this is hard to believe – when shit kicks off, they don't just sit on the back fence watching the men go to work while they gossip and talk about Girls; they fight.
Sergeant Stacy Pearsall was a military photographer for the US Air Force, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan and winning the NPPA Military Photographer of the Year award twice and a Bronze Star medal for her troubles. Stacy was constantly thrown into positions of field combat during her time in the military, proving that she was far more than capable of being a soldier years before some men in Washington decided that she could be. So I called Stacy to find out what she thinks of the news.
Stacy at work.
VICE: Hey Stacy. How do you feel about the US lifting the ban on women fighting on the front lines?
Stacy Pearsall: Obviously, having been through all I have, I think it makes sense. I've always felt that the prohibition of jobs to women based on their gender is just as archaic as closing jobs based on religion or race, because it should just come down to one’s ability to perform the job.
Were you angry before that women were denied the chance to fight on the front line? Did it ever affect you directly?
Hell yes. There were some really great assignments that I was restricted from doing because of my gender. That really got my goat a lot of the time. I mean, I was military photographer of the year.
Yeah, exactly! So, am I capable? Hell yeah, I'm capable. Here's the thing – when they were judging the military competitions, your name and your gender weren't even announced, they base it solely on your work. So I sat there in those competitions and I was referred to as a guy the entire time. So did it matter that I was a woman? No. I think the thing we need to ask ourselves again is, "Can this person perform under these circumstances?"
Yeah, it's a mental thing rather than physical now, right? I mean, men can't possibly be able to mentally shut off to war more than women, can they?
I know that it affected them because I saw it first hand. Saying that women aren't mentally up to the challenge is absolutely ridiculous. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I experienced some of the most horrific things you can imagine in life. Does that make me less of a person? No. It’s unfair for people who have never experienced trauma like that to pass judgement on others.
You've said before that your injuries and problems weren't taken seriously. Was that because you're female or just because, in general, those sorts of things weren't taken too seriously?
In our culture, it's not good to kind of fess up that maybe these military traumas are sticking with you. I wasn’t afraid to go back to combat, that was never an issue. It was more me putting pressure on myself. I didn't want to draw attention to my fellow combat photographers. I didn’t know how they were going to react and I didn’t want them to react negatively, so I just kept it to myself. That, again, was self-preservation
What happened when you stopped keeping it to yourself?
Well, when I finally did want to go out and seek treatment, it was a weird process. It was an educational process. Let me ask you something. When we identify combat – what gender do we think of?
A guy, right? Because that’s what we are predisposed to. In movies, on the history channel, in all these documentaries, all we see is men. So now the culture is changing, we as a society and the world at large have to change our views as to what a combat veteran looks like.
And you obviously didn't fit that view while you were serving.
Exactly. I didn't fit that "A type" combat veteran thing. Later down the road, when I went to get care at the VA (Veteran's Administration), I was waiting for my appointment and the Red Cross were there handing out cookies and coffee to veterans. I went up to get a soda and the girl swatted my hand away and said, "No, that’s for the veterans."
So having the ban lifted will slowly help to change these stereotypes.
Of course. With the change in policy, there has to be this automatic assumption that this woman did see combat, and further questioning: to what extent? What injuries did she sustain? Basically getting the same run up diagnosis as any male counterpart. And I think this is really going to change how health care happens for women veterans, which is a really great step in the right direction.
Now the US has started the long road to integrate women into combat units, what do they now have to look forward to?
We can look forward to seeing more women paved the way, like the women who paved the way for me, and watch them progress and keep striving for better things. When the bullets start flying, it's about your ability to engage the enemy, be a part of the team and function properly behind the weapon. Guys will be guys – they're going to reference pornography, talk crudely and use the word "fuck" all the time, you just have to have thick skin and understand that that’s the culture. But yeah, I'm very happy to see the lift of the ban because it will give so many more women an opportunity.
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