“We will welcome any candidate who meets standards.”
So says Rear Admiral Brian Losey, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, the military authority over the nation’s Navy SEALs and special warfare combatant-craft crewmen, as he signals the command’s readiness to open basic SEAL training to women. So begins the change.
Losey penned a five-page memo to the members of his command, detailing his thoughts on women entering Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S), in which he laid out his concerns, predictions, and overall outlook on the issue. The letter, obtained by the Associated Press, follows on the heels of earlier reports that Losey was contemplating opening BUD/S to women, and follows similar moves being made in other special operations units.
In his memo, Losey wrote that there were “no insurmountable obstacles” to bringing females to BUD/S, while pointing out that he thought there would be physical and medical challenges to the women who did attend the training. This seems rather obvious, given that there are physical and medical challenges to the men who attend BUD/S, as well (understatement, anyone?). Nevertheless, it remains a concern.
Losey opined that the challenges will be greater for women as compared to men, pointing out the concerns regarding how well women can handle the extreme physical demands of BUD/S, as well as the long-term medical impact of serving in the SEALs.
In addition to those concerns, Losey raised the (valid) issue of how unit cohesion will be effected by integrating females into the SEAL teams. He downplayed those concerns, however, noting that acceptance of female SEALs within the teams will increase over time. He noted that the men will have to adapt to female teammates, while the women will have to deal with possible isolation and ostracization. Both of these facts seem likely, at least initially, in some circumstances.
It should be noted, however, that previous social changes imposed on the military have also been accompanied by strife and a period of change and adaptation. One former SEAL officer recounted for this author how his platoon witnessed race riots onboard Navy ships in the 1970s, long after racial integration had been imposed on the service. Nor was it uncommon for black sailors in those days to be treated more harshly than their white crew mates.
In his memo, Losey also raised concerns over the probable media attention that would swarm BUD/S’s first female candidates. He pointed out that such attention might distract the instructor staff and other students from their training, and might jeopardize the anonymity of the students in the program. This latter point seems a bit farcical, considering that the command has, on numerous occasions, allowed the media to observe, report on, and even film BUD/S students in training, and has allowed some active-duty SEALs to star in a Hollywood movie.
Despite the latter overblown concern, there are real issues that arise from the social restructuring of such small, insular units. One such issue is how the various SEAL commands will handle unplanned pregnancies during deployments and work-ups. These are small, tightly knit units, and each individual operator plays an important role on the team. That said, it is not uncommon for SEAL platoon rosters to change during work-ups and deployments due to injuries, family circumstances, and other issues. These are rather routine changes, and female members who might become pregnant will likely be handled in the same way.
Another valid question that arises is how the Navy, and Naval Special Warfare Command, specifically, will deal with fraternization in the forward-operating theaters. Sexual relationships between men and women are common on U.S. Navy vessels despite various rules governing such behavior, and one must assume similar issues will arise when the sexes mix in small units, on far-away battlefields. How those relationships will be handled, and how they will effect unit cohesion, remains to be seen.
While Losey appeared to stress that standards will not be affected at BUD/S by the addition of female trainees, a number of SEALs past and present continue to worry that women will be nudged through BUD/S, or that the standards will be lowered to allow them to pass the course. It is a common refrain, and one worth addressing and ultimately preventing. The standards must never be lowered if the SEALs are to remain an elite force.
Finally, as has been pointed out by other commentators, it would seem logical that as women more fully integrate into the ranks of combat arms, including into the most elite units, they should also expect to be enrolled into the Selective Service program. Although today a draft seems a distant prospect to many Americans, it nevertheless remains a possibility in future conflicts—think about a war with China or Russia—and women ought to expect to be drafted the same as men, given full sexual equality within the armed forces.
Admiral Losey’s memo is the clearest sign yet that BUD/S will soon open its doors to women. It appears to be a foregone conclusion that it will at least be attempted. What remains to be seen is how it will all play out: how women will perform in BUD/S, how seamlessly (or not) they will be accepted into the SEAL teams, and how unit cohesion will be affected in the process. There are clearly challenges and areas in which problems may arise. However, that does not mean it is a bad idea, necessarily, to try.
Many argue that the military is not the place to conduct social experiments, given its singular role in providing the national defense. However, that claim belies the military’s long history of being used as a Petri dish for social change. Why should we expect that fact to change now, to the exclusion of more than half of the U.S. population?
Here come the ladies, fellas.
(Featured image courtesy of the White family)