Latina veterans who broke barriers in the U.S. military in the 1980s say the Pentagon’s historic decision to lift a ban on women serving in combat is long overdue.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announced changes on Thursday on military policy, opening more than 230,000 frontline combat positions in the U.S. Armed Forces to women, particularly those in Army and Marine infantry units.
The move, which overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units, was welcomed by Latina military trailblazers
Sexual tension, My god? You’re at war... If you are disciplined enough to fight and hold a gun you have to be disciplined enough to control yourself.
- Olga Custodio, First Latina Military Pilot in US History
“Many times, my sisters have always said, in combat there is not a line. We’re all in harms way,” said Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, the highest ranking Latina in the Combat Support Field of the U.S. Army at the time of her retirement and the first female officer ever commissioned in the state of Texas.
Castillo, born and raised in Laredo, Texas, believes the change in policy will open the possibilities for promotion for women in the military, especially for the 22,700 Hispanic women who make up 13.6 percent of total active duty roster.
“Latinas will excel, they will rise, and they will succeed,” the Mexican American said. “Latinas in the barrio are tough women. Many of us have had to deal with a lot of things.”
That sentiment is shared by retired Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, USAF, who served in the United States Air Force for over 28 years and retired in 1985 as one of the most highly decorated women in U.S. history. A Vietnam veteran, Vaught is one of the few military women in that war who were not nurses.
“Women certainly will be in a position to move forward to become a commander, an officer, and maybe one of these days we can see the first female Chief of Staff, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” said Vaught, who is president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington D.C.
Castillo, who inspires children through her organization, Educational Achievement Services, said the new policy will allow Latinas to rise through the ranks. But, she said, she’s not sure how much families of Latinas will embrace them taking combat roles.
“It’s going to be a very emotional response,” she said. “Not only are you asking to take their sons, but now you’re asking for their daughters, their hijas, to be put in harms way.”
Opponents of allowing women to be on the frontlines say women do not have the same strength or performance ability that can put soldiers on the frontlines at risk. Panetta said Thursday that not everyone can meet the qualifications to be a combat soldier. But, he said, everyone is entitled to the chance.
Olga Custodio, 60, the first U.S. Latina Military Air Force Pilot, disagrees with the notion that women won’t meet the same standards as men. She said there are a lot of women that want combat positions, and they have been on the frontline in some form or another for decades.
“Now, there’s a choice,” she said. “Now, they have the opportunity of getting recognition and proper training.”
Other critics have raised concerns about the “sexual distraction” women would bring to the front line, preventing males and females “from building the camaraderie necessary to survive.
“Sexual tension, my God,” Custodio said. “You’re at war. If you are disciplined enough to fight and hold a gun you have to be disciplined enough to control yourself.”
Custodio remembers similar situations when she first entered the armed forces in 1980. She said women are going to have to adapt to the situation, not make excuses, and should be diligent about accountability to make sure they are treated with respect.
Ultimately, women say the decision to join the front line is a personal decision that should be well thought out, especially with the new danger ahead for female combat troops.
“Prepare yourself and your family for what may come,” Casillo said. “Get your affairs in order.”