Psychological issues top military's concerns over women in combat

It was the first congressional hearing on women in combat since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel officially lifted its ban on female soldiers joining infantry and other front line units in June. 

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Along with infantry positions, Hagel's decision also opened up the ranks of elite combat units, like the Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs, to women for the first time. 

Since then, much of the debate has centered on whether female recruits would be able to meet the physical standards required in combat units. 

However, Pentagon officials told members of the House defense subpanel that more of the military's concern lies in whether women soldiers can deal with the psychological toll of combat. 

"The social and psychological factors need to be . . . as important as the physical," requirements for female soldiers looking to move to direct combat roles, Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, head of the Marine Corps' manpower office, told lawmakers. 

"We're all looking at those sorts of things, recognizing that there is this psychological piece [that] is equally important to this as the physical," the three-star general added. 

Those mental stressors are amplified when the discussion shifts from regular combat units to the smaller, specialized units under Special Operations Command. 

Special operations teams are responsible for some of the most sensitive counterterrorism and combat operations conducted by U.S. armed forces. 

Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, head of force development for Special Operations Command, said Wednesday that command officials  "fully supports the decision" to allow women into special forces. 

That said, the teams "deploy in close proximity to or behind enemy lines, and they live and work in very close quarters with each other," making personal relationships and dynamics among team members critical to a unit’s survival, according to Sacolick. 

"When you talk about real small teams that often deploy . . . entirely alone, [and] in many respects, they may be the only American forces in a particular country. . . I don't want to do anything that affects that [team] dynamic," he said. 

That kind of dynamic demands a unique balance of physical and psychological readiness that is unusual among rank-and-file military personnel, the two-star general added. 

"That's why unit cohesion has been and continues to be so important," Sacolick added. 

When pressed by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) on whether the addition of female soldiers into the Special Operations ranks would disrupt or destroy that kind of unit cohesion, Sacolick replied: "I don't know if that's going to be an issue at this point or not, but we're looking at it." 

However, the Special Operations personnel chief made clear that command officials were going into the department's transition to female combat troops with an open mind. 

"We are absolutely not predisposed to any particular course of action," he said. "Our only concern is generating qualified [special operations forces] operators to support our country without regard to gender."