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Woman Who Sued To Reverse Combat Ban Was 'Stunned, Then Ecstatic'

Jan 24, 2013
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Joining us now to talk about that decision is Colonel Ellen Haring, who's had a 28-year career with the Army. She's one of two women who filed the first lawsuit against the Pentagon to reverse the ban on women in combat.

Colonel Haring, welcome to the program.


BLOCK: And first, your reaction to this announcement from Secretary Panetta.

HARING: Well, I was stunned and then ecstatic. I think that all of us who have worked so hard to make this happen, we're just thrilled and just in shock, really surprised that it happened when it did. And we were concerned yesterday that there might be some caveats, but it sounds today like they plan to open everything to women.

BLOCK: Assuming they can meet a certain standard, yeah.

HARING: Right, of course, and that's all anybody ever asked for. Nobody ever asked for special considerations or reduced standards, just let us compete at the standards as they exist.

BLOCK: When you talk to some of the members of the military, do they share your view? Are you hearing any hesitation?

HARING: I'd say 98 percent share my view. There's a tiny percentage who don't. But largely, I'm hearing from supporters or people that are really - see this as a really positive change.

BLOCK: I understand you have a daughter who's a lieutenant in the Army. Is that right?


BLOCK: And how does she feel about this?


HARING: That's funny that you ask. I talked to her about it yesterday, and she's very excited about it happening. She's a little...


HARING: ...concerned about possible blowback in her direction - her mother stepping out and doing this. But she's really proud that I did it even though, you know, as a young lieutenant you're in a much more vulnerable position in the military. So having her name associated with this, which is also why many of the younger women that we were considering with the lawsuit, eventually we didn't include because they were just in a more vulnerable position.

BLOCK: You do hear this from people on your side who say women should be allowed to have combat positions in the military, that not letting them do that prevents them from advancing in the ranks. Does that ring true in your experience? Can you think of things you were not allowed to pursue specifically because you didn't have combat experience?

HARING: Well, yes. So I graduated from West Point in 1984 and all the combat branches were pretty much off-limits to me and my fellow female classmates. And what's not readily apparent is that when you get in the higher ranks, almost all the highest positions all the general officers are pulled from - actually, 80 percent is the percentage - are pulled from those combat specialties that women are excluded from holding.

And so, the result is that women at the senior levels of leadership in the Army comprise only 4 percent of our generals, even though we hold about 16 percent of the positions. You don't realize it when you first come on active duty and in the early years of your career. And, in fact, I didn't know it until recently that our chances, women's chances are almost zero to make it into the general officer pool relative to our male counterparts.

BLOCK: And do you feel that in the overall attitude as well?

HARING: Well, yes. I do think that there's an attitude that because we don't perform the core missions of the military - the combat missions - that we're not valued equally to our male counterparts.

BLOCK: Secretary Panetta today said he thinks this will make the military stronger. But, of course, opponents have real concerns about unit cohesion, about privacy. They say standards inevitably are going to be lowered and that the military will be weakened. What would you say to them?

HARING: Well, I strongly agree with the secretary that this will strengthen our military. I don't think that anybody plans to reduce any standards. And we've done a very good job as we've opened previous positions to women, for instance, the female fighter pilots. We didn't change any standards. We held standards the same, and they performed and continue to perform extremely well.

So as far as reducing standards or lowering standards, I don't see that happening. I think women will be required to meet the same standards and they'll perform extremely well at that.

BLOCK: And as the mother of a young lieutenant in the Army, you wouldn't have qualms about her signing up for a combat position?

HARING: I would definitely have qualms with my son or my daughter signing up for combat positions. And I have two sons also. But I don't think you can place more value on one of your children versus the other simply because of their gender. So, like I said, I've got a daughter and two sons, I don't - I would be worried about all of them.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, Colonel Haring, it's good to talk to you. Thank you so much.

HARING: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Colonel Ellen Haring. She is one of two women who filed the first lawsuit against the Pentagon seeking to overturn the ban on women in combat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.