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Military Women: The Surprising Health Benefits of Combat Integration

Setting the bar and creating cohesion

Better, Not Worse, Together

Military veterans have a good understanding of what unit cohesion means, but if you’re not a veteran or want a refresher, a recent RAND study outlines various ways unit cohesion is established. Task cohesion means everyone is working toward the same goal. Vertical cohesion means troops and their leaders bond, while horizontal cohesion means bonding between peer members is strong.

Our bodies view lack of unit cohesion – or the absence of social support – as a physical threat. In fact, feeling disconnected from others is more dangerous to your health than smoking. Stress hormones surge, and when they’re elevated too long, men and women both begin to have difficulty communicating, displaying empathy, and engaging in high-level thinking. Physical performance also suffers.

Women in the military self-report low levels of unit cohesion. They don’t feel they belong in their respective groups. The reasons are many and the solutions – which inevitably lead to better physical performance and mental health outcomes – are simple.

However, while task cohesion can be easily established among the differently abled, vertical and horizontal cohesion are incredibly difficult to build without trust. Trust built around physical toughness is at the core of vertical and horizontal cohesion in the military; blending varying physical requirements creates a low-trust environment.

Even if a female service member is capable of the same performance as her male counterparts, she will not be inherently trusted if that capability is not validated through identical performance standards. Lack of trust influences unit cohesion and the performance of that less-cohesive team.

Currently, one in seven women Marines seeking to enter combat arms specialties pass the rigorous, gender-neutral performance tests. In an age where 85% of America’s youth are ineligible for military service because of weight problems, medical issues, education, or criminal past, a slender subset of men are capable of becoming U.S. Marines. Fewer women – only one in every 12,889 – will choose to serve as a Marine. Those who opt into combat arms specialties are an even more slender subset and represent a powerful class indeed.

From the moment women recruits enter boot camp, they are trained to a lower standard. Different performance and training standards establish women as marginal, ensuring that they will always be suspect in terms of capability. This marginalization damages military women in ways that matter even after they leave the service. Women are more than twice as likely to suffer from stress injury and depression and the suicide rates of military women are six times higher than civilian women!

Of course, expectations aren’t the only thing that drive performance. Physical capability matters too. Marine Corporal Angelique Preston, the first artillery woman in the Marine Corps, remarked that respect is driven by a combination of will and capability.

“Coming into these types of jobs, you have to be both emotionally and physically strong,” Preston said. “You can’t just be one or the other.

Amazons Only

Security challenges facing America in the 21st Century are many. They include enemies united by ideology rather than statehood – male and female extremists alike. Women Marines will continue to be operationally needed, especially in the Middle East, during the coming years.

As gender integration continues in the military, expect several things to happen.

  • First, equal standards will weed out the majority of women in the Marine Corps. We need to accept that – at least initially – increased standards will result in a drop in the number of women in the Corps. Women currently comprise 7% of the Corps. That number is likely to drop to 1-3% as new standards come into play.
  • For integration to work, it needs to be performance driven and not quota-driven. However, to position women for success, they must not be hamstrung by the substandard training they continue to receive. Good training will ensure that when the enemy meets a woman Marine at a Syrian outpost, she’ll be the right Marine for the job.
  • Second, as combat roles open to women Marines, and as formal and informal expectations of performance increase, so will the performance of women Marines. Expectations are closely correlated with performance.
  • Third, as gender integration into combat arms occupational specialties begins, and as the integration happens with peers who can trust their physical capabilities, expect to see better horizontal and vertical cohesion.
  • Fourth, improved cohesion will result in better individual and group performance.
  • Finally, better mental health outcomes for women service members are likely. Women Marines will no longer mentally join the vocal chorus of men who ask, “Are you really capable?” Instead, they, and their male peers, will be certain.

The military’s insistence on performance-based integration, while perhaps driven by widespread misogynistic culture, will ultimately result in stronger and better performing units and better mental health outcomes for women service members.

We are integrating the combat arms because we have needed women operationally the last fifteen years in theater. Training women to do what the Marine Corps is already asking of them and creating the same mastery experience opportunities from entry-level changes the environment in ways deep and meaningful.

As 21st Century challenges evolve, we need diverse teams with diverse thoughts. However, this diversity of thought must be bound together by unity of capability and high trust. The former breeds the latter.

Written by Kate Hendricks Thomas

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Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is an assistant professor of Public Health at Charleston Southern University. She is a teacher, speaker, and the author of Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance.
Hendricks Thomas, also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, helps businesses and military veterans optimize their performance through resilient leadership training. Her behavioral health research, published in journals like Advances in Social Work, the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, and Gender Forum, has been praised as “masterful” and “constructive.”

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