LUMBERTON — Harold Demery has lived through war.
More than a half century since he was last in combat, the 77-year-old Pembroke resident can still smell war’s pungent odors. Nightmares recur about the horrific sights and the blood curdling screams of his wounded and dying comrades. For him, war is something he would never wish upon anyone — especially a woman.
“Not to be cliche but war is hell — it’s indescribable to tell you the truth,” said Demery, who was a prisoner of war for 62 days during the Korea War. “A person who’s never been there has no clue what it’s like. You have to be there to see it and even then, you can hardly believe what’s happening.”
Demery thinks Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a mistake on Jan. 24 when they ended a ban on women in combat roles — an unwritten rule until 1994, when it was codified. The decision allows women to eventually serve in some roles, such as infantry and artillery, with a deadline for that to happen by 2016.
Proponents say the decision is about equal opportunity and gender equality. Opponents blame political correctness, saying standards will be lowered, missions jeopardized and there other issues, such as fraternization.
Kenneth Sinclair, a 20-year Air Force veteran, takes the side of equal opportunity.
“I have never been to war,” said Sinclair, who lives in Lumberton. “But this decision involves woman’s rights, political correctness and equal opportunity. Women have proven themselves recently in Iraq and Afghanistan and deserve a chance to succeed in the infantry. They have been doing the same jobs as men with little to no recognition. It’s about time they got some.”
The Robesonian tried unsuccessfully to find a female veteran from Robeson County to interview for this story, so instead spoke with Cecilia King Ledford, a Marine veteran. She doesn’t believe the battlefield is for women.
“I would most definitely say no,” Ledford said. “Yes there are those few that are one of the guys, and there are those few who can meet the standards, but looking at the big picture, it’s not a good idea. There are so many factors to consider — sanitation, mental health for the men and women, physical capabilities, and harassment, again from men and women.’”
Demery said his chief concern is women don’t have the physical strength and endurance for combat.
“For the most part, most women are unequivocally not fit for it,” he said. “They aren’t strong enough. I’m hell bent against it. It’s an insult to those who have fought in previous wars.”
Ledford, however, believes some women can hack it physically.
“There are some women that are physically able to keep up with the men. For instance, I could max out on my run, my hang, my crunches …,” she said. “I might be small, but I am strong. I could probably hack it as a grunt, but there are other physical limitations to consider.”
Such as hygiene.
“For example, what are they to do when it’s that time of the month?” Leford said. “… There’s no time for that out there … .
“Then there’s the sanitation issue of actually physically washing your body. When I was in Al Asad in 2005, we did not have running water. We would collect water bottle from the pallet of water bottle they kept outside and bring them in to warm up a little … . We ghetto rigged so that we would hang up a water bottle and poke holes in it so we could have a shower.”
While Panetta and other military leaders say standards will be not be sacrificed, Demery disagrees.
“They don’t have the brute strength to be able to have the same standards,” Demery said. “They are not built for combat. They don’t have the strength or mental capacity.”
Again, Sinclair disagrees with Demery.
“Women can hack it with the rest of the men both in and out of combat,” Sinclair said. “Women are tough. Actually, I personally think women are more vicious and vengeful then men. Minimum requirements should be set in stone. That’s the only way this will be successful.”
Ledford worries standards would be bent to accommodate women.
“I’d say no, but the answer can only stay no if they hold the women to the men’s standards,” she said. “They can’t say, ‘oh you only have to be able to carry and lift 25 pounds,’ but the men are doing 100 pounds. Everyone has to pull his or her own weight. There’s not gonna be anyone there that can pick up the slack for the females.
Women make up 15 percent of the current armed forces, and there are 1.2 million female veterans. According to Women Veterans of America, in the Army, 9 percent of jobs have been off limits, and in the Marine Corps, the percentage is 38 percent of jobs were closed to females. Only 1 percent of the Air Force jobs are restricted, and women in the Navy are only excluded from ground combat, SEAL teams, special boat units, and submarine crews.
While the change authorizes women to hold any job across the armed forces, individual branches may petitions to keep women out of certain duties.
Demery, a Silver Star recipient, fears the worst for the future of the U.S. military.
“Women don’t have the capacity for combat,” said Demery, who served in Inchon, Surang and Chosin, all in North Korea. “It’s a man’s job. Integration will make the outfits weaker. If some women saw what happened in Korea, they would never join. It’s something I would never subject my daughters, sisters or nieces to.”
Sinclair, who served as a supply specialist and mobile maintenance technician, doesn’t foresee a tilt in either direction.
“Just because a woman is involved, it won’t be swayed either way,” Sinclair said. “I don’t think they will open it up to just about anyone. A bar should be set and if you meet that bar, then you’re good to go. But for the ones who make the cut, I’m sure they will carry on with the legacy.”
Demery believes the reality of war will beat back any tide.
“The women who do join will find out that war isn’t what they thought it was,” Demery said. “There is no glory in combat. Once they have seen a half dozen men get blown away they will wish they were not there.”
“I think it’s the same for men and women,” Sinclair said. “I don’t think America is ready for anyone to be killed in action. But freedom is not free. Death is the cost of freedom and a lot of women have gotten killed in combat. Nobody wants to go into harm’s way and see or hear of a son or daughter being killed, but bad things happen in war. That’s just the nature of the beast, and if women are willing to lay their lives down for our flag, then so be it.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 1,000 killed or wounded despite not officially holding combat roles.
Ledford wishes women already in the military had a voice in the decision.
“I feel like they should’ve polled the females that were in the Marine Corps or still in,” she said. “We’ve been deployed, we’ve been in places where we were the only females, etc. In my circle of friends, not one of us agrees with women being in the infantry or on the front lines. It’s like that chick that made a stink about not being able to go to the Citadel and then she ended up dropping out. Sure, there are some women that go there and make it through, but it’s a select few.”