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How the US military can become a 'band of brothers and sisters'

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Arielle Werner, 21, originally of Minnetonka, Minn., is a combat soldier with Israel's co-ed Caracal Battalion. "Women in combat can only bring good things," she said. "Two halves of a whole together can only be good."

Even before she moved to Israel, Minnesota-born Cpl. Arrielle Werner was certain she possessed what it took to fight on the front lines. 

"I realized that I couldn't be the passive Minnesotan," said the 21-year-old member of Israel's majority female Caracal Battalion, a combat unit which patrols the volatile border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. "I knew this was the place for me. My friends back in the States are shocked … now I’m the wild combat soldier."

The self-described "peace keeper of the family" said she is prepared to "give everything" on the battlefield. 

That's the sort of gung-ho attitude that military brass appreciate in any soldier -- but it isn't an attitude many expect from a woman.

There have long been barriers to women at war, never mind those assigned to fight at the tip of the spear. But the U.S. government's announcement on Jan. 24 that it was dropping its ban on women in combat units changed everything. (While not officially in combat units, American women have long served side-by-side with male service-members -- in fact, 152 women died while being deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Despite living in a country "where some still think women should stay in the kitchen," Werner feels accepted by male colleagues.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision to lift the 20-year ban on women serving in combat will open some 237,000 combat-related positions to women. Initially, women will be assigned to combat communications, logistics and drivers. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

"There is a little bit of a glass ceiling (but) ... you see women every day getting higher and higher," said Werner, who is originally from Minnetonka, Minn. "As long as you want to succeed and want to get stronger … you’re able to handle everything."

While many worry whether society has the stomach to accept women being killed, and being killers, Werner is in no doubt about her place on the battlefield.  And she doesn't mince words about her fellow females in the co-ed Caracal Battalion.

"These girls are tough," she said.

Werner, who has been on stationed on the border since October, admitted that she has noticed differences between the sexes.

"Guys are able to really to put a tough face on things (while) girls really take time to put emotion into something," she added. "Women in combat can only bring good things. Two halves of a whole together can only be good."

Not practical or not relevant?
As the U.S. military implements its new and controversial policy ahead of a January 2016 deadline, it will be seeking lessons from Israel and the handful of other countries that currently do not bar women from front-line combat. They include all of Scandinavia, Australia, Eritrea, France, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Korea, Poland and Romania.

Despite examples set by these countries, one of the biggest worries remains that integration will undermine the essential cohesion of the so-called band of brothers that has long defined the camaraderie among fighting men.

"(In the British military) the argument always comes down to the pure practicalities of the effectiveness of the unit rather than if a woman can't do it," said Amyas Godfrey, a former infantry officer and associate fellow at British security think tank the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI).

Atef Safadi / EPA, file

Israeli female soldiers take positions during clashes with Palestinian protesters from the West Bank village of Nabi Salah on Dec. 28.

The United Kingdom is almost alone among Western European countries in not allowing women into front-line combat roles.

"It comes down to 18-to-22-year-old boys not being able to ignore the fact that there is a woman in their midst," he said. Integrating combat units and concentrating on making space for women also "doesn't fit with the practicality of closing with and killing the enemy," he said.

Norwegian Brigadier Odin Johannessen, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and commanded military units for 12 years, disagreed with the idea that men and women could not be trained to serve together.

"In mixed units, what is most important is to become a soldier," said the 51-year-old who formerly ran the Norwegian Army Academy in Oslo. "That you are a good soldier tends to be the most prized factor of all, if you are a male or female doesn’t matter."

"It's called a band of brothers. I would rather rephrase it to a band of brothers and sisters," he added. 

Johannessen's exposure to military women colored the rest of his career.

"My first day in the military I met Sgt. Bente Karlsen and she has been present in my mind for my entire service for the professional way she led us," he said.  

Karlsen had the essential ability to convey instructions and orders, but also clearly cared about the young men under her command, Johannessen said. 

"She was a brilliant sergeant and showed me that it matters not if you are male of female," he said. 

Norway has no official restrictions on women joining any of its operational units, although no women are members of its special forces. Nine percent of combat roles in Norway are made up of women, and the armed forces' aim to increase that the proportion of females in military positions to 15 percent.

'Masculine warrior culture'
With its "no-exclusion policy," Canada is also recognized internationally as one of the few militaries to have officially removed all barriers to women. Canadian women have served and died on the front line in Afghanistan, and make up four percent of the roles in Canada's so-called combat arms divisions, and 14.8 percent of military roles overall. 

Getty Images, file

Canadian Master Corporal Tera Avey of Edmonton, Alberta, a mother of two and one of three female combat soldiers, wakes up on March, 2002 in the rocky Shahi Kot mountains in Afghanistan. Hundreds of American and Canadian troops were lifted into the mountainous region at high altitude to search and destroy Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

Karen Davis, a gender integration expert for Canada's armed forces, acknowledges that women have to adapt to the "masculine warrior culture" of combat units.

But when Canadian men and women were sent to fight on the front lines in Afghanistan, fears that women's presence would hurt all-important unity did not bear out, she said.

"What we learned when we went into Afghanistan is that Canadian soldiers are trained to do a job, no matter if they were men or women," Davis said, adding that proper and rigorous training before deployment helped make this happen.

Whether women can or should be treated and tested differently from their male counterparts is at the heart of any discussion on how to integrate military operations, especially front-line combat troops.

In Israel, where women have formed part of the military since before the founding of the state and face conscription, the training process "accepts differences between men and women and just deals with them," according to Capt. Eytan Buchman, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.

"Everybody comes in with their own baggage and physiological differences," he added.

Johannessen, for his part, advises trainers and commanders to not give women under their command special treatment. 

"Say there are two females in the unit. If you want to do it wrong, pay special attention to them," he said.  

To this end, gender-neutral physical standards are also essential, he said.

According to Davis, Canada's success at integrating women also came about as a result of a rigorously enforced non-fraternization policy. And the onus for making sure relationships don't happen lies not just on the women, but also the men throughout the chain of command, she says.

But beyond policies and rules, Norway's Johannessen says that more women make militaries better and smarter.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

View images of the women deployed as the second Female Engagement team in Afghanistan

"Men and women are looking at a problem from different positions," he said. "Having the possibility for a different view is many times better."

While integrating women into combat can be down to well-thought-out polices, effective leadership and rigorous training -- natural attributes for any well-run military organization -- an important lesson is that change will most likely not come quickly or implemented uniformly.

Gender integration expert Davis admits that even her own thinking changed radically from the time she joined an all-female land-bound unit in the Canadian Navy in 1978. At the time, she agreed that women did not belong in many roles in the military. But in 1985 that changed: Davis was asked to be one of two women to go to sea for 12 days on a formerly all-male ship.

"I came back questioning everything," Davis said. "I had joined and completely accepted everything I had been told, but in fact none of it was rational, it could all be dismantled." 

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