(CBS News) - Military leadership last week revealed their plans to integrate women into previously closed positions of combat. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta first announced the repeal of the ban on women in combat roles in January, opening up nearly 240,000 jobs to women in the military and the opportunity to serve on the front lines for the first time in U.S. history -- technically speaking.
The reality is that women have been fighting and dying alongside their male colleagues in the past two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department of Defense reports that women make up 15 percent of the military, and over the past decade, more than 280,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. 152 of these women have died.
Combat roles in World War II and the Korean War were fought on a traditional, linear battlefield, Dr. Nora Bensahel, the deputy director of studies and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security explained; men were upfront in intense combat, and women played supporting roles.
In the last decade, however, the linear battlefield has essentially disappeared. Involvement in counterinsurgency and other types of asymmetric warfare means that the U.S. does not fight enemies in a traditional battle line -- it also means that women are targeted by enemies.
"Insurgents were trying to attack supply lines in an effort to make it more difficult for U.S. forces to operate. And so women were being targeted, taken prisoner, all the things that in more traditional battlefields was true of the front line entry units," Bensahel told CBS News.
Outside of the thorough integration of women in combat support roles, the Cultural Support Program already puts women in key roles. These all-female teams are specially selected and trained to serve alongside and work very closely with front line combat units and Special Forces teams, which have been exclusively male. Cultural Support Teams were created in 2010 per the recommendation of Navy Admiral Eric Olson to bridge the cultural communication gap between U.S. male forces and Afghani women.
The U.S. Army describes the role as that of a cultural support specialist with an understanding of human behavior, an appreciation and understanding of Islamic and Afghan culture, and the roles women play in Afghanistan. While the role is described in touchy-feely terms, the emphasis and importance placed on physical prerequisites is equal to the rigor of the mental and intellectual evaluation designed to determine a candidate's ability to be a Cultural Support specialist.
"How physical were they? Definitely a physical standard. The general guidance was that the women should not be a liability to men," a former Special Operations officer told CBS News. "They had to be physically fit enough to keep up with the general movement. The physical standard did eliminate a lot of people."
The other major concern that the military has expressed moving forward with the integration of women in combat jobs, aside from tough physical fitness requirements, is the concern of cultural disruption. The military, however, is not new to institutional cultural change. Most recently, gay and lesbian soldiers were integrated into the military with the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT).
The findings of a Dec. 2010 RAND study discussing the projected effects of repealing the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops suggested that "cohesion in combat stems not from shared values and attitudes but from the shared danger of combat" and the "shared commitment to the unit's task-related goals." So is the repeal of DADT an appropriate comparison to the repeal on the ban of women in combat? This study's answer is: Well, not really.
Discussions around diversity challenges among U.S. military personnel have almost always identified more problems caused as a result of gender rather than race, sexual orientation, religion or culture. Personnel from foreign militaries that have already integrated women into combat roles -- such as in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom -- have also indicated that the integration of women was more complex and raised unique challenges, Bensahel told CBS News.
Major General Bennet Sacolick, director of force management for U.S. Special Operations Command, reinforced this concern to reporters last Tuesday. He is more concerned with men's reactions to women in their formations. "Of particular concern is our mission set, which predominantly requires our forces to operate in small, self-contained teams, many of which are in austere geographically isolated, politically sensitive environments for extended periods of time," he said.
However, one unreleased study obtained by CBS News that analyzed various military cultural shifts reached a different conclusion. It showed that Cultural Support Teams have had little trouble integrating with all-male teams and that the inclusion of females on previously all-male teams has not diminished team cohesion or military effectiveness. The study also notes that work required by CST's Strike Force, night and day raids that target specific insurgents, is inherently physical and requires high levels of physical fitness due to various factors such as long movements on foot in full body armor.
Research on pack cohesion generally underscores the importance of individual task performance -- can your teammate complete the task at hand, and are you confident in his or her competence? This is not true just in the military but in the workforce, on sports teams, etc.
"We're in a cramped compartment. A tank gunner must reach over to the rack, lift that 55-pound shell from the rack, pull it out, flip it over, and inset it into the breach. That's one of the tests that we're testing our Marines, both male and female, for this summer," Colonel John Aytes of the Marine Corps described to reporters last Tuesday. Phase One of the Marine Corps three-phase plan across the next three years, beginning this summer, will review and validate gender-neutral physical standards so that integration is done "right."
"Right means we maintain combat effective units up across the total force and we don't set our female Marines up for failure by not preparing them for any resultant institutional change," Aytes said.
With the exception of the inclusion of African-Americans, the military has not traditionally been a vehicle for social change. Some believe that the issue at hand is being framed incorrectly -- that this is not about creating a common standard for both men and women, this is not about equality, career progression -- this is about women contributing to the level of their ability in ways they uniquely can.
"Women can tolerate cold better, can suffer through pain better, they are more patient, they often learn languages better, they certainly relate better to certain elements of a population," a former Special Operations commander explained.
"It's all about how do you create an environment that lets women do what men do? And I think it's backwards. I think it's: how do you create an environment that appreciates what women can do uniquely and then how do we organize women to do these things and how do we ensure that they are promoted, supported, etc. It has little to do with going to Ranger school. It has much more to do with taking advantage of women's natural advantages."