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Female Medics in Line Units

Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) VII has seen many firsts, one of which was the deployment of a modular brigade, the 3d Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT), to the Afghanistan theater. Forward support companies (FSCs) were brand new organization and came out of the modular brigade. However, before their creation, many discussions were conducted concerning which military occupational specialties (MOSs) these companies would require and if medics would be a part of their overall makeup.

Before modularity, female Soldiers were not part of the modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) for a maneuver element. But female Soldiers would realistically have to be part of FSCs since this type of unit would consist of combat service support MOSs. So, why not have female medics? The historical argument has been that female medics should not be in line units because they would distract infantry Soldiers and would not be able to keep up physically. But during OEF VII, female medics became invaluable to the maneuver elements and were key to the information operations campaign.

During OEF VII, C Company, 710th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB), 3d IBCT, sent 24 of its 27 female medics on missions with maneuver elements. Five of these female medics were attached to the 1st Battalion, 32d Infantry Regiment (1–32 Infantry) and the 2d Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment (2–87 Infantry) for the duration of the deployment. During the last 3 months of the rotation, two other female medics augmented the 3d Battalion, 71st Cavalry Regiment (3–71 Cavalry), and two were with the 1st Battalion, 102d Infantry Regiment (1–102 Infantry).

These medics performed missions such as—

  • Running a battalion aid station.
  • Providing medical support for other Government agency missions.
  • Providing battalion tactical medical support.
  • Providing medical civil assistance programs (MEDCAPS).
  • Operating tailgate medicine.
  • Conducting liaison missions with local national midwives.
  • Visiting the non-Government organization clinics in the area.
  • Assisting with births of local nationals.
  • Providing medical care to other female Soldiers on the forward operating bases.

Female medics were called on during every major operation for Task Force Spartan, which included Operations Mountain Lion, Mountain Thrust, and Mountain Fury. They also supported combat logistics patrols for the 710th BSB, route-clearing missions with engineers and military police, security and reconnaissance missions with the 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment (4–25 Field Artillery), and dozens of MEDCAPs.

Providing Care to Females

It was clear early on that female medics would provide maneuver units with some medical capabilities that could not be provided using only male medics. The female medics were able to provide medical care to hundreds of local national women and children that male medics would not have been able to provide because of the local populace’s strong cultural beliefs about protecting women. These female medics helped the 3d IBCT make great strides with their information operations campaign. Although the missions could have been accomplished with male medics, showing the local populace that we cared about their customs and respected their culture made a difference.

In the Afghan culture, females are not allowed to receive medical care from males unless a male family member is present. Because of this, females are dying in childbirth and from treatable diseases. This situation makes our female medics an even greater lifesaving force in Afghanistan. They provide Afghan females with the care their country will not provide except under specific rules. Having the female medics enables Afghan females with serious medical problems to come out and receive the care we can provide.

By working in the 3–71 Cavalry Battalion aid station in Naray, female medics made it possible for local females to be seen in the clinic. Before the female medics arrived, fathers, husbands, and brothers refused to allow their wives, mothers, or sisters to be seen by males. Female medics helped break this barrier, but they did not just treat local females; they also treated the males. This showed the locals that, in American culture, women have equal standing to men and are treated with the same respect.

Information Gathering

In one example of how our female medics supported our mission during OEF VII, a local national woman turned her son in to the 4–25 Field Artillery Battalion because he was a manufacturer of suicide bombs. She was willing to turn in her son in order to get medical care from a female medic. It is small things like this that make a vital difference in achieving victory in this enduring mission. These female medics in Regional Command East have been featured in information operations fliers, newspapers, and radio messages. The great contributions made by these Soldier medics are simply remarkable.

When units can set up a MEDCAP with one side for males, treated by males, and one side for females, treated by females, our Soldiers are able to reach a large part of the population and gain information that may not have been provided otherwise. When women can be separated from the men, they have been known to verify information with more accurate reports.

Female Shuras

Some village councils, known as shuras, which traditionally consisted of only male elders, are starting to add women. Some of these female elders are midwives who are working to improve medical care. Female shuras are selected by their own communities, and they provide health messages to their communities. They improve the use of health services by raising awareness about health issues. These women have been supporters of using our female medics to help provide their communities with care.

Pros and Cons of Female Medics on the MTOE

So, should maneuver units in an IBCT have female medics as part of their MTOE? The benefits they provided during the OEF VII deployment were unmatched.

Pros. Medics are medics. They train together and work together—one team, one fight. Having female medics on the MTOE would provide the maneuver units the opportunity to get used to working with both male and female medics. In this way, during a deployment, they are fully mission capable.

Cons. The potential fraternization issues and doubts that a female medic is up to the physical standard of a male medic have been used as arguments against having female medics on the MTOE.

Pros and Cons of Female Medics in the FSC

Pros. Females already serve in FSCs, which have dual chains of command through both the maneuver unit and the BSB. Being part of an FSC allows the medics to train with both the medical company in the BSB and the medical platoon in the maneuver element. It also provides medical support to the FSC.

Cons. With female medics being a part of the FSC and not the medical platoon, they may not get the training with the medical platoon and the integration with the maneuver Soldiers that they need to function as required.

This is an argument that can go back and forth with no true solution. But, to have female medics as part of the FSC with other females, with the understanding that they train with the medics in the medical platoon within a maneuver element, would be ideal. Four to six female medics, with ranks of specialist and sergeant, could provide the maneuver elements with the needed maturity and capability to treat both female Soldiers in the FSC and local national females.

Planners should consider the number of male and female medics in a medical company in the BSB. In an IBCT with six battalions, only two battalions are authorized female medics. A medical company in a BSB is authorized 38 medics; these are not gender specific. Currently, C Company, 710th BSB, has 13 male medics and 25 female medics.

Based on different mission requirements, consideration should be given to setting a gender quantity for these medics. I recommend 17 male medics and 21 female medics. During our OEF VII rotation, we had both forward treatment teams sent forward along with many requests for medics during other missions. These requests were for both female and male medics, depending on what type of support they would be providing. Without limiting the number of females in a medical company, these requests may not always be filled, which could limit mission accomplishment.

Captain Lisa M. Dennis is an instructor for the Army Medical Department Captains Career Course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She was the Commander of C Company, 710th Brigade Support Battalion, 3d Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), at Fort Drum, New York, when she wrote this article. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stephen F. Austin State University and is a graduate of the Army Medical Department Officer Basic Course and the Army Medical Department Captains Career Course.

The author would like to thank First Lieutenant Zachary Heinrich, First Lieutenant Scott Martin, and First Lieutenant Benjamin Wilson for their contributions to this article.