They've seen combat

Friday, February 8, 2013
Photo courtesy of Amy Irvin Retired Maj. Amy Irvin, USMC, of Cornersville Highway, served in Iraq as a battalion executive officer and company commander during 2004-05.

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

A memo from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey paves the way for more women to serve in direct combat roles and in more occupational specialties now open only to men.

"Been there. Done that," is what two Lewisburg women could say, but neither would. Their character overrides such simplification of the memo and pending shift in military culture ordered by two men who directly serve the commander-in-chief.

"We did have some bombardments on our compound and, of course, we put on our masks," Marshall County Veterans Services Director Freida Johnson said of her time as a logistics specialist in Tikrit, Iraq.

Johnson, a 1979 graduate of Marshall County High School, succeeded Billy Hill as the veterans service officer. Irvin moved here with her husband, the Rev. Mark Irvin, on the July 4th weekend in 2010.

"I was in combat and initially was in a support role," Irvin said. "I became a commanding officer, had a company and was second in command of a battalion at the same time...

"During offenses it was the wild west," she said. "I survived an IED attack and a rocket attack when a shell landed."

The Chinese rocket dud landed close enough to have killed her and Marines with her.

"I never had to pull the trigger," Irvin said. "When an IED goes off, whom do you shoot at?"

It's foolish not to open jobs to women who qualify for the work, she said.

The Panetta-Dempsey memo of Jan. 24 rescinds a 1994 ground combat definition keeping women from "units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground," the Defense Department reports. Without specifying openings for women, the memo says strategies shall start by May and be in use by 2015.

Irvin hasn't always advocated women in combat, concerned that upper body strength might not be there. When she joined the Marines, Vietnam combat vets were prominent in the service and the military culture was still evolving.

"You're only as strong as your weakest link," Irvin said. Combat teams count on each other as having met minimum standards.

She and Johnson want women to have the opportunity to serve in combat. Johnson expected to be in combat because of her training. She knew what she'd face because of her uncle, Houston Johnson, who's from this area. He retired and died in Clarksville.

"When he came back from Vietnam, (she was 10, and) he talked about foxholes, rats, being shot at," Johnson said. "I loved to hear him tell about it. I figured I'd have a time when I'd have to kill someone."

There've been concerns about a man in a foxhole with a woman during combat, Johnson said. He might feel obliged to protect her and not do his job.

Johnson has been Marshall County's Veterans Service Office director for three months.

"My job is to serve the veterans of Marshall County," Johnson said. She hopes her willingness to be in front line combat reflects her ability to fight for veterans' service.