What Does It Mean to Serve in Combat?

By Jude Eden Published on September 7, 2018

The difference between supporting and fighting roles in combat has reared its head in two New Hampshire primaries.

All the contenders are veterans and three served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Democrats of District 1 are Terence O’Rourke (Army) and Maura Sullivan (USMC). Republicans Lynne Blankenbeker (USN-Ret) and incumbent Rep. Steve Negron (USAF-Ret) are competing in District 2. Sullivan was a Marine logistics officer on her Iraq tour. Blankenbeker served in a combat hospital in Afghanistan. Neither fought directly, so their opponents blast their use of terms like “combat” and “fighting” about their service in their campaigns. Responding with attacks of their own, the women cast their rivals as sexists stuck in the Stone Age.

Exaggerated Service?

As Task & Purpose­ reports, O’Rourke, who was a field artillery officer, believes Sullivan exaggerates her service. Sullivan’s campaign website begins front and center with “Just as I fought in Iraq.” O’Rourke says “she did no such thing.”

activists counted on the public not knowing the real definition of combat. So they redefined it as just “being in harm’s way,” even if one did no fighting.

Sullivan rebutted by saying, “This attack comes from someone who clearly doesn’t understand or value the role of women in the military, and it displays an appalling level of ignorance and disrespect.”

The Default in Political Races

Typecasting the dispute as motivated by chauvinism is all-too common practice in today’s political arena. But challenging military service claims is equal opportunity between the sexes. It’s easy to see why. Candidates often embellish. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) took heavy flak for giving the false impression he’d served in Vietnam. In 2008, Hillary Clinton told a tall tale about taking sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia. Pretending to be something you aren’t (like brave) is practically the default in political races.

Veterans and combat veterans in the public sphere routinely face scrutiny of their service claims. Women candidates face it today. This illustrates their equality. Their foes are treating them just like (military) men, hoping to gain political advantage by casting doubt on their integrity.

Defining Combat

Everyone who deploys to a combat zone in wartime is considered a “combat veteran” by the Department of Defense and other official groups. That can be confusing for the general public. The distinction of fighting in combat comes in the form of the combat action ribbon or badge.

O’Rourke earned one for combat action in Iraq. Sullivan and Blankenbeker don’t simply refer to themselves as combat veterans and explain how that will make them good representatives. They go into misleading territory, as in Sullivan’s “just as I fought” language on her website. Blankenbeker’s campaign slogan is “combat proven.” As one Negron supporter, Iraq veteran and State Rep. Sean Morrison noted, “[That] means you were in direct combat with the enemy and you acted appropriately.”

Bolstering Political Standing

Blankenbeker said challengers “should be ashamed” for drawing a distinction between her work as a combat nurse and combat fighting. But should they? Isn’t she banking on voters having the same read of “combat proven” as Morrison? Isn’t she using that assumed meaning to bolster her political standing, gain their trust and get their votes?

It’s not surprising that candidates would use, well, fighting terms, then defame cynics with tired canards about sexism. Activists for coed combat units did the same thing to get that policy enacted and faced little opposition. They conflated support roles in the combat zone with infantry attack missions. Any disagreement, no matter how sound and scientific, was pigeon-holed as sexist misogyny. Sullivan and Blankenbeker are trying a political tactic that seemed to work before. There is one glaring difference. No one got to vote on coed combat units.

Valorous Actions but Not Combat

In pushing that policy, activists counted on the public not knowing the real definition of combat. So they redefined it as just “being in harm’s way,” even if one did no fighting. Blankenbeker applied this re-definition with a story about her service. She described holding an explosive from an injured Iraqi woman’s suicide rig until the woman could be sedated. A valorous action, without question. Combat? No.

Sullivan used the same tactic by recounting a 2005 convoy attack in Fallujah. On that June day, insurgents ambushed a convoy of female Marines on their way to checkpoint duty. Three women were killed and eleven more were seriously wounded. Sullivan said, “Gender lines [in Iraq] were erased because it was a conflict without front lines where attacks could come from any direction at any time. Any notions otherwise are sexist and badly outdated.”

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I served in that same checkpoint duty in Fallujah months later. As I often emphasize, convoys and frisking native women for explosives are dangerous, but they are not direct fighting. Risk of mortar attack is not fighting either, and blurred front-lines still don’t mean that everyone fights. If danger is all that’s required, any number of non-military situations would qualify as combat.

What’s more, in the 2005 example gender lines weren’t erased. That convoy was targeted because it carried a large group of women, and they weren’t trained as infantrymen. Intelligence showed the attackers thought the convoy would be an easy target. They knew killing American service women would be profoundly effective propaganda to demoralize our military and the country.

Does It Matter to Voters?

Whether fudging concepts like “combat proven” will matter to voters remains to be seen. Combat veterans get a mixture of fear and awe from civilian peers. Support from the right is ever steady. On the left it has only come into vogue in recent years, conditional on framing the wars they fought in as unjust.

Some say the definition of combat is changing. But its specific meaning that involves real fighting persists. The candidates know it and are counting on it to gain political currency. But their opponents, who are also combat veterans, know the difference and aren’t afraid to expose it as a weakness in their rival’s integrity. After all, they are looking to gain the edge to get elected, too.

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