FORT JACKSON, S.C. — When Jonathan Proffitt, a 28-year-old infantry drill sergeant, joined the military in 2003, if a woman was present, “we’d just get real cautious.”
Nearly a decade later, he said the division’s culture is still unique: “Infantry is its own little world inside the military.”
That world is changing, though, and even talking about the change is making people cautious.
On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced an end to the ban on women in direct combat.
Fifteen percent, or nearly 202,400, of the U.S. military’s 1.4 million active personnel are women. And more than 280,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade.
Many have earned medals, some have been harassed and assaulted, and more than a few have been sidelined by pregnancy.
Most women entering the Army – 60 percent – are trained at Fort Jackson, a 52,000-acre community in the middle of South Carolina.
“A lot of people are going to be outraged,” Proffitt said of the policy change. “They’re kind of messing with something that’s worked well since Rome.”
For those women who want to fight, he said, “I understand that everybody wants to do their bit.”
Public Affairs deputy Patrick Jones wouldn’t grant media access to soldiers inside Fort Jackson. He said that the post was waiting for guidance from headquarters and that people were still figuring out what the change will mean.
For instance, infantry is trained at Fort Benning, Ga. But if women are allowed to enter the infantry, will they go straight there or will they go to Fort Jackson?
A more general concern now is how much it will cost to meet increased privacy requirements that come with forming coed units.
Of a dozen soldiers approached Thursday at Trenholm Plaza shopping center near the fort, no one openly supported integrating women into direct ground combat units. Almost all hesitated to express their opinions publicly and feared running afoul of higher authorities.
One said they’d just gotten an e-mail from a higher-up who warned them “not to talk about any political stuff,” in order to avoid controversy.
The manager of Pancho’s, however, was happy to discuss the news he and his wife had seen on TV the night before.
“I think ladies can do anything,” said Enrique Lopez, who is from central Mexico. He said it was his wife who had mixed feelings about letting women fight. Lopez said the change would set a good example for Mexico, where he said you seldom even see women riding motorcycles or driving 18-wheelers.
A longstanding argument for allowing women to serve in direct combat is that it lets them advance their careers.
“It does give women an opportunity to distinguish themselves in combat, like men are able to do,” said Beth Bernstein, a Democrat in the South Carolina House whose Columbia district stretches over Fort Jackson. “Women have kind of been in those situations anyway, so the policy change is good.”
Ralph Waldrop thinks so. He recalled how scary it was to read e-mails from his daughter, Leah, when she was serving in Afghanistan four years ago.
“She’d say, ‘I feel better today because we have adequate security going into the villages,’” Waldrop said. “That means they didn’t before.”
At an American Legion lounge in Columbia Friday evening, Waldrop, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, knocked down a list of arguments against letting women serve in combat.
For one, he said, look at Israel’s combat forces, which include women and openly gay soldiers. Also consider female police officers in the U.S., he said, who “will kick your butt.”
Waldrop said excuses to keep women out won’t stop the march of progress. Still, lifting the ban will take some time.
Military departments must submit plans by May 15 for how to carry it out. The services have until 2016 to state which positions should continue to be off limits to women.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson’s district includes Fort Jackson, and he supports the new policy.
Caroline Delleney, the Republican’s spokeswoman, said, “Congressman Wilson plans to review the Department of Defense’s plans for implementation and agrees that the brave women in our Armed Forces have earned and deserve the right to serve in combat.”