Retired general helped end ban on women in combat

She was the first woman graduate from the U.S. Military Academy to achieve the rank of brigadier general, and she helped design the framework for lifting the ban on women in combat.

As a member of President Barack Obama’s Military Leadership Diversity Commission, Rebecca S. Halstead knows from her experience commanding 20,000 soldiers in combat in Iraq that women fighting the nation’s wars have often been in the cross hairs. And, just like men, they bleed when they are wounded and come home with the stresses of combat etched in their minds.

“I definitely believe there will be women who will meet the standards and there will be women who do not, just like men who do not,” Halstead said when asked about the physical requirements faced by women who want to be Army Rangers and Green Berets, which had been off-limits to them until this year’s announced ban lift.

Halstead, 53, was put through the physical training ropes at West Point with the Class of 1981. Although 5 foot 1½ inches — “and don’t forget the half,” she notes — Halstead advises against judging women soldiers by their height.

“This is about the professional ethos, not about the male or female egos. It’s really about respecting each other. That’s what it’s going to take,” she said in a Jan. 31 interview, about a week after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and military leaders lifted the ban on women serving in combat positions.

“Everybody thinks women have not been in combat. Women are already out there serving side-by-side,” she said.

“They’re in the same convoys but don’t wear the same patch. Some are even on foot patrols. The enemy doesn’t know or care about a piece of paper that says whether they’re attached or assigned.

“What’s being lifted is the assignment policy: where and at what level and what units they could be assigned to.”

Commanders of three infantry brigades reported to Halstead in Iraq in 2006, two years before she retired.

“It was interesting as a female commanding general that they were in my chain of command,” she said. “Women couldn’t be assigned to an infantry battalion, yet I had three different brigades that were under my command.”

Her experience in Iraq proved to be the most challenging year of her life.

“It would also be my most rewarding in terms of gaining a deeper and greater understanding of the human dimension. I tell people it was the highest high and the lowest low. It was also the saddest year of my life,” she said.

In a Super Bowl Sunday interview with “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley, Obama said he admires the abilities of military women like Halstead.

“I meet extraordinary women in uniform who can do everything a man can do and more,” the commander-in-chief said. “One of my military aides is about 5 feet tall, probably weighs a hundred pounds, and you put a 50-pound pack on her, and she can do things that you or me would keel over doing.

“So, the truth is, is that women are serving, they’re taking great risks. What we should not do is somehow prevent them from advancing in an institution that we all revere,” the president said.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at or 702-383-0308.