Women in Combat: Women Will Eventually Pass Infantry Course


"Never tell a young person anything cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing."  - John Andrew Holmes

The Marine Corps has announced that in March, two female Naval Academy graduates will be the second group of women to attempt to pass the Marines’ notoriously rigorous Infantry Officer’s course.  Two women attempted the course earlier but failed to complete it. A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of sitting down with General James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps. There were several female reporters who kept grilling him on the women in combat issue while I surprised him and asked what he thought about the quality of his post 9/11 intelligence support.

Why didn’t I ask about the women in combat issue? Simple: women are already serving successfully in combat jobs throughout the services and there is no doubt in my mind that at some point women will pass the infantry course. The two biggest challenges will be maintaining their mental toughness and dealing with the skepticism of those who believe women don’t belong. What these men fail to realize is that it’s they, and not the women, who are having a negative impact on unit cohesion.  If a woman can pass the crucible of training, she has earned a right to be part of the team.

What most impressed me about General Amos was the fact he was open-minded about the issue. He said he couldn’t remember the details of why the first woman dropped out of the course on the first day, but the second one was doing very well and had to drop out because of stress fractures. He said her teachers and peers were impressed and all rooting for her.

I’m of the mentality that a career in the military is a calling and men are not the only group called to serve. What qualifies me to speak on this topic? You be the judge.  I grew up in the ghetto of Newark, N.J. 

One day when I was about 5, I was watching a World War II themed movie called Wing and a Prayer with my father.  It was about the USS Enterprise in the aftermath of the attack of Pearl Harbor and concludes with the Battle of Midway. There was a character played by the actor Don Ameche.  Just before the climatic battle scene, he gave the pilots an intelligence briefing telling them the locations of the enemy Japanese Naval forces.

I was riveted by the scene. I turned to my dad and told him, “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.” My father, a man ahead of his time, looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and stated, “This is America, and you can be whatever you want to be.” 

In 1973, 20 years before federal laws changed, I was the first woman in Naval History assigned to a combat unit as an intelligence officer, and at the time of my retirement, I was the highest ranking African American female in the Navy. At the beginning of each assignment I had to confront the same “chatter” you hear today about why women don’t belong. I learned professional excellence trumps criticism.

Captain Gail Harris, USN (Retired) had a 28-year career in intelligence, which included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. Her book, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press, is available on Amazon.com.

For more on Harris' journey, click over to Fox News' story on her.