Gender Was Irrelevant ; Guard Members Respond to Decision Allowing Women in Combat

By Kersey, Lori | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), January 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

Gender Was Irrelevant ; Guard Members Respond to Decision Allowing Women in Combat


Kersey, Lori, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


Sgt. Sara Yoke was part of a humanitarian mission to a remote village in Afghanistan with the West Virginia Army National Guard when she and her fellow soldiers came under fire.

She was alongside a special operations troop bringing blankets and other winter supplies to villagers.

Yoke, a member of a public affairs unit, was covering the story as a journalist.

When the mission turned into a 45-minute gun battle, Yoke, her commander Lt. Todd Harrell and others took cover in front of the truck that had carried the supplies.

And Yoke kept working.

"I was incredibly impressed with her professionalism," Harrell said of Yoke. "She continued to do her job. She was calm and cool - I mean she was phenomenal."

Yoke, now a 26-year-old living in Charleston, earned a Bronze Star and a Combat Action Badge.

As a woman, she is not allowed in a special forces unit like the one whose story she covered. But that's about to change.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced plans to allow women into combat roles that were previously closed to them.

Women have been close to the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade now. Lifting the ban on women means that now they'll be allowed into frontline positions and potentially elite commando jobs. Military officials have until 2016 to seek exceptions for roles they believe should remain closed to women.

The changes won't happen instantly, though. Some jobs may open this year. Others, like special operations forces, may take longer.

Should women be allowed into combat roles? That's not for Harrell to say, he said. But in his experience, the gender of his soldiers was not an issue.

"As a commander [with a] public affairs unit I had several females on my team and to me gender was irrelevant," Harrell said.

"[Yoke] had a job to do, male female or whatever ... gender just wasn't an issue and it's because of the way she carried herself as a solider. I think there's a lesson there."

Panetta was careful to point out that though the roles will be open to women, the requirements for getting those roles won't change.

Yoke agrees with that stipulation.

"I think if there are women who are able to meet those rigorous standards there's no reason they shouldn't be able to," Yoke said, adding that it takes a certain type of person to want to serve in combat roles. "I certainly think there are women who are capable. I don't think that there are a lot," Yoke said.

"Even having that as a possibility, I think it's outstanding," she said.

It will require a change in military culture, Yoke said.

"I don't want to say [the military is] chauvinistic but it might take 20 years for this to happen and the culture to change," she said. …

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