War-experienced Canadian, 21554 Maj. Eleanor Taylor, advised U.S. brass on females in combat
By: Matthew Fisher (Originally posted in Canada.com)
When the U.S. Marine Corps and army wanted advice about whether women should formally serve in combat units, one of those whose expertise they sought was 21554 Maj. Eleanor Taylor of the Royal Canadian Regiment.
The 37-year-old Nova Scotian was uniquely qualified to speak to the senior American brass about this issue, which made front-page news across the world last Thursday when U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced a lifting of the ban on female service members in combat roles. Taylor was the only woman to lead a NATO combat unit in Afghanistan. She commanded an infantry company and attached units that frequently engaged in combat in 2010 while operating from a remote forward operating base in the notorious Taliban heartland to the west of Kandahar City.
“I think that it is fantastic that the policy has changed to reflect the reality that they (women) have earned through their hard work and blood. It is a very positive step,” Taylor said in an email from Toronto, where she is taking a staff course that is the logical progression for a combat arms officer being considered for battalion command.
“Clearly I am in the camp that believes that these trades (combat arms) should be open to women. I’ve been enjoying my service in the infantry for over 15 years now, so it sometimes surprises me that it is still an issue.”
Canada allowed women in combat units beginning in 1989. The first time they saw actual combat was in Afghanistan.
American women often served with distinction in combat during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet despite the fact that more than 800 of them were maimed and more than 130 of them were killed in firefights or by homemade landmines while on patrol, they did not technically serve in combat units because this was officially forbidden. Rather, they were deployed in supporting functions providing transport, logistics and medical care for combat units in the field.
“This restriction forced the U.S. army to do what any army would do — develop workarounds to get the job done,” Taylor said. “In many cases women would be ‘posted’ to a non-combat organization but ‘lent’ to a combat unit. (However), the battlefields that soldiers fight on today are not the linear ones of the past. In conventional fighting, a person who was employed in a supporting role in the rear was really at much less risk than someone who was in a fighting unit forward. Today the concepts of forward and rear are less clear and some units filling supporting roles are at as much risk as combat ones.”
Taylor’s dry words do not capture the dramatic effect that her presence with Charles Company had on the battlefield two years ago in Panjwaii, which has perhaps the most deeply conservative Islamic society in the world.
As I wrote then, when Taylor took off her blast goggles and helmet, revealing her blue eyes and sandy hair, grizzled Afghan elders were taken aback at meeting the first woman to ever lead a Canadian infantry company in combat.
“I would be disingenuous if I did not acknowledge that they were often very surprised,” Taylor said at the time. “There was shock on their faces and they would exchange words among themselves. I know the word for women in Pushto and I heard that word.”
But the elders were always respectful as well as curious about Taylor, as were the troops from the Afghan National Army who were partners with her unit. So, as she said, “it turned out not to be a handicap at all. I honestly think that the notion that Afghan men won’t deal with western women is a myth. Or that has been my experience, anyway.
“Certainly if an Afghan woman were to come and tell them the things that I asked them, they would receive an entirely different response. But as a western woman they see me as foreign and if they hold prejudice towards women, and I certainly suspect that some may, they don’t show it. In fact, I have found they have been more open with me — certainly much more than I expected — than with some of my male counterparts.”
What the elders told Taylor was that they believed that she was “easy to work with because I am a woman and they know that women are compassionate and here for peace whereas they think that the men are here to fight. Of course I am also here to fight, but when I speak with the locals, they don’t need to know that.”
A combat engineer attached to the outgoing Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry company died a few days after Taylor arrived in Panjwaii. Four of her own troops suffered serious injuries soon after that. The major’s own “close call” came when a Taliban mortar hit the reinforced roof of her company’s command post, exploding about one metre away from her head.
“They (the Taliban) were good. They had us accurately bracketed,” she said, speaking like the career soldier that she is. “We got them later, did you know that?” she added, after remembering that I, too, had been close to that exploding mortar shell.
Of her tour of duty in such a hardscrabble, unforgiving environment, she said “the troops performed marvellously. I learned that they will do everything that is asked of them. They have an undying sense of humour that keeps us all going and they will do anything for each other. I knew this before, but they are incredibly perceptive and intelligent.”
As for her gender, “I don’t really consider it relevant. The fewer people in my organization who think about it, the better.”
Although always interesting and fun to chat with, it took months to convince Taylor to agree to a formal interview because, she said, other male company commanders, who were not being singled out, faced similar challenges in Panjwaii. Moreover, she said that it was her soldiers, not her, who had done the fighting.
Another reason Taylor did not wish to draw attention to herself was that other Canadian women saw combat in Afghanistan.
Capt. Nichola Goddard led an artillery unit from Shilo, Man., and was hugely admired by her troops. She died in 2006 when the armoured vehicle she was in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade during an ambush.
Trooper Karine Blais, of the Quebec-based 12th Armoured Regiment, and Petawawa combat medic Master Corporal Kristal Giesebrecht, when she was attached to the Royal Canadian Regiment, also died during combat operations in Kandahar.
Another woman, Captain Ashley Collette of the Royal Canadian Regiment, received the Medal of Military Valour — Canada’s third-highest military honour — for her leadership in Panjwaii in 2010. During “intense combat” that was considered “critical to defeating the enemy,” infanteer Collette was praised for her “fortitude under fire,” according to the citation read out when Gov. Gen. David Johnston presented the medal.
Nor was Taylor the top-ranked female Canadian combat officer to serve in Kandahar. Lt.-Col. Jennie Carignan, who is now a colonel, was Task Force Kandahar’s senior combat engineer during 2009.
Like Carignan, who is from Quebec, Taylor is a mother. The self-proclaimed army lifer from Antigonish, N.S., whose husband is a military intelligence officer, gave birth to a son 16 months ago.
Taylor praised the generals she met in the U.S. last summer, to discuss women in combat, for “getting it right.” They had done this, she said, by collecting the experiences of other nations and applied them to ensure that some of the mistakes that had been made in formally integrating women into combat units could be avoided.
“My personal experience has been that the (principles) of leadership and team building apply equally to women as to men,” she said in her email. “As long as you protect qualification standards and give no impression that anyone is getting a free ride, integration, while not without bumps, will be much less dramatic than people envision.”