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3rd Brigade Combat Team chief recounts 2012 pilot program for women in combat units

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FORT DRUM — The implementation of a pilot program last year that placed women in infantry units in the post’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team did not affect its performance, its commander said.

The program ran from May to November, a period that included a brigade reset following its return from deployment and work training deploying soldiers during the post’s Mountain Peak exercise.

“It was a time when we had to put a lot of responsibility on our leadership to support that exercise and support that reset,” Col. Samuel E. Whitehurst said. “They definitely rose to the occasion. As a commander, I had very little concern about completing both of those missions.”

The brigade was one of nine brigade combat teams at six installations nationwide to take part in the program. Between officers and enlisted soldiers, 16 roles were opened up, such as field artillery fire support officer, military intelligence, chemical officer, supply sergeant and radio retransmission supervisor.

Even though women had served in the brigade before the pilot program, they had been assigned only to its Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, Special Troops Battalion and Brigade Support Battalion.

In the program, female officers and noncommissioned officers were moved into the brigade’s infantry and field artillery battalions.

Col. Whitehurst, who assumed command of the brigade in June, said the growing pains associated with making the change came with countering what he called the “frat-house mentality” within units used to being filled only by men.

He said most issues of integration were resolved when women showed their effectiveness.

“As soon as they proved themselves, they were accepted by their units, and they continued to do very well,” he said.

The brigade opened up 38 positions for women during the program, with 32 of the women still in their new roles after the program’s completion. Col. Whitehurst attributed the departures to regularly scheduled reassignments.

Col. Whitehurst was asked by the Times to speak about the program’s effectiveness as the military looks to open up combat roles to women. Military service branches have until May 15 to submit plans about their implementation to the secretary of defense.

Col. Whitehurst said he felt the move made the Army stronger.

“One of the things I’ve found being in the Army is that we are a meritocracy. From my perspective, I only want the best and brightest,” he said. “Whether a soldier is male or female does not matter.”

Col. Whitehurst said the key was to establish a climate where things such as a soldier’s gender, race and religion were less important than effectively completing his or her work.

“It’s about establishing that sense of teamwork, and finding what each soldier brings to the team,” he said. “That challenge is always there, and that should always be the focus.”

The brigade is sponsoring a group of six West Point cadets, two of them women. Col. Whitehurst said he told the students that he would love to learn their opinions five years from now when they graduated and were actively serving.

“I think what you’d tell me is that your units are much stronger because we have crossed this barrier,” Col. Whitehurst recalled telling the cadets.

A father of two daughters, Col. Whitehurst said he would be proud to say one of his daughters had the opportunity to follow his footsteps as a rifle platoon leader or be a graduate of Ranger School. However, he said, he did not think his daughters were interested in joining the Army.

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