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1980s: The Accomplishments

The buzzwords for the decade were “combat exclusion.” Many women of the ’80s neither needed nor wanted this exclusion and many civilian policymakers in Congress and the Department of Defense believed women capable of filling the assignments in question. Most military leaders thought differently.

The Army’s Direct Combat Probability Coding (DCPC) system of 1983 illustrated the military’s position. Using the DCPC, the Army rated each job and each position in every unit along a continuum. Jobs with low probability of enemy contact were on one end and those of high probability were on the other and closed to women. The DCPC forced women out of jobs and units where their capability was already proven.

Even with the limitations imposed on their service, women filled positions that made combat exclusion policies difficult to define and enforce. All services, with the exception of the Marine Corps, trained women as pilots and aviation crew. The Coast Guard and Navy provided some opportunities for seagoing and command assignments. Women received weapons training, served as military police and embassy guards, launched missiles and served in other positions that blurred differentiations between combat and noncombat positions, particularly under conditions of modern warfare and technological advances. Women in the Air Force, for example, could launch ICBMs with nuclear warheads to eliminate enemy targets—but they could not serve in air-to-air combat.

In 1983, when the United States sent forces to Grenada, women were an integral part of combat-ready units and had the skills and training to perform their jobs. As a result, 170 female soldiers served in Operation Urgent Fury in the first gender-integrated units ever deployed. In several cases, however, women who were filling no-combat designated positions such as MPs were initially returned to Ft. Bragg, NC, because the commander on the ground in Grenada believed their risk of being exposed to a combat situation was too great. The commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division overturned the ground commander’s decision and returned the servicewomen to Grenada. The DCPC system was obviously too elaborate and complex to be easily understood, indicating that an overhaul was needed.

Under pressure and faced with complaints and inconsistencies, the Army fine-tuned the DCPC, opening 12,000 more positions to women by 1987. And when the invasion of Panama occurred in 1989, close to 800 military women took part in Operation Just Cause, the then-largest deployment of US troops since Vietnam. Women found themselves dodging bullets and returning fire as they served in a variety of combat support and combat service support roles. Combat operations clearly were not limited to members of the infantry—a field still closed to women. As helicopter pilots and military police, they commanded assault teams and served under heavy enemy fire in the air and on the ground. (Read about Linda Bray, the first woman known to have lead troops into battle.)

The press seized their stories, and issues of women in combat moved outside the Pentagon into public debate. But substantial policy change did not occur until after Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.