CASPER, Wyo. — When Kathy Wright was in basic training she handled no weapons.
She took classes on etiquette, learning the fundamentals of good posture and cosmetics.
She watched drill sergeants issue rifles to male soldiers.
“I was envious,” Wright said.
She is now the brigadier general of the Wyoming National Guard. The Gurnsey-Sunrise High School graduate was the first woman to achieve the position in the state.
Before she was the state’s top leader in the National Guard, she was told by a male counterpart that she “may make it to captain someday, but not any farther than that.”
Gender plays less of a role in military operations than ever before, Wright said to a crowd of 50 people at Casper College on Thursday. The tools of modern warfare have changed the rules for battle. Scud missiles, drones and roadside bombs are gender-neutral, she said. In a time where only 1 percent of the country serves in the military, the need for larger, diverse squads has helped lift the glass ceiling for women and rescind the prohibition on females serving in combat roles.
Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the combat ban for women in January. When the Department of Defense considered lifting the combat barrier 19 years ago, many said it would weaken the military. Some detractors still exist. But women who fight, die and mourn for the country are now on the same playing field as men.
“Women have been a part of the nation’s military since the Revolutionary War,” Wright said. “But they had to cloak themselves and disguise themselves to serve alongside men.”
The move to integrate women into combat was seen by some as the Pentagon caving to political correctness, Wright said.
That’s not the case, she said.
Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, women have shown their ability to serve in a multitude of roles, Wright said. More than 20,000 women served during the nation’s latest confrontations in the Middle East. More than 800 were wounded and more than 150 died in service.
“Women take part in combat action every day,” Wright said.
The ability for women to fight isn’t what makes Panetta’s decision monumental, Wright said. The decision is a watershed moment because it gives female soldiers the ability to choose what type of role they want to play in defending the nation.
“As an all-volunteer military, women should be able to volunteer to do the same thing as men do as long as we are capable in the role,” said Amanda Preddice, a public affairs specialist in the Army’s 197th Public Affairs Detachment.
Skeptics of Panetta’s decision say physiological differences between male and female bodies are reason for keeping women out of combat. No one denies that the bodies of men and women are different, Wright said. Men have stronger upper bodies. Women have stronger lower bodies. Men have more aerobic capacity. Women have better balance. But if a mission requires a soldier to lift 200 pounds, a 5-foot man would have the same trouble as a 5-foot woman, Wright said.
Previously, positions, to women, were open by exception, she said.
“Now they will be closed by exception,” Wright said.
The transition to integrate the positions will be complete by January 2016.