Friday, May 1, 2015

Veteran Tammy Duckworth sums up the conversation about women in combat, perfectly!

This week the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee heard 18 hours of debate before approving a $612 billion defense policy bill that will now be send to the full House for consideration. Part of the debate centered on the role of women in combat forces, an issue that has garnered significant press attention in the last few years, and has been thoughtfully written about on this blog.

It is hard to think of more sexist workplace than the United States military. It is the epitome of masculine culture, where strength, aggressiveness, and competition are encouraged and admired. It is thus unsurprising that in such a hyper-masculine culture, discrimination or devaluation of women has occurred within the U.S. military since its inception. But the truth is that women have served valuable roles in the military since the American Revolution. In the last 50 years, women’s presence in the U.S. military has grown steadily. 

Yet, despite increasing numbers of women serving in the military, a discriminatory Department of Defense “Ground Combat Exclusion policy” has remained in place to restrict women from artillery, armor, and infantry combat roles.

Serving in the U.S. military is honorable. We respect our service people and veterans; we call them heroes. It can be a good way of life­—a way to get an education, see the world, make a good living wage, and earn a retirement. The problem with these discriminatory combat exclusion policies is that it prevents women from having the same opportunities for advancement in the military. Promotion in the military, including to the very highest posts, is based on combat experience. So, as Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, states:

If women remain restricted to combat service and combat service support specialties, we will not see a woman as Commandant of the Marine Corps, or CENTCOM commander, or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus women in the military are being held back simply because they are women. Such an idea is not only completely at odds with military ethics, but is distinctly un-American.
In May, 2012, two female soldiers filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the combat limits. This set off a chain of events that has led to significant changes in military policy over the past three years. First, in January of 2013 the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended that the combat exclusion policy be lifted, noting:
[T]he time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.
In response, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially lifted the combat policy exclusion. The Secretary’s action gave the services three years to figure out how to integrate women into all combat roles without reducing combat readiness, worsening sexual harassment rates and breaking women’s bodies by assignments for which they don’t qualify.

Since the ban on women in combat has lifted, each branch of the armed services has been “experimenting” with women in their combat troops. 60 Minutes ran a story titled A Few Good Women about the Marines trying to recruit women into their Infantry Officer School. The story highlights a “14 hour Combat Endurance Test” that requires numerous tasks over a 16 mile course.

Two things struck me about the story. First, I simply don’t understand why accommodations cannot be made for females. Is the military unable to recognize that women may have different strengths than men, and that by allowing them to be part of a combat troop but only carry a 50 lb. pack instead of a 100 lb. pack, that may add value? The military needs to re-examine its demands. Perhaps the rigors are justified, perhaps they are antiquated. If the demands are justified, then fine. Certainly some women will be able to meet them, and they should be allowed to do so. If they are outdated to the modern reality of combat, then adjustments should be made. It seems to me that the physical requirements exist just to discriminate against women.

Second, the males within the military are very resistant to women being part of their club. The brave woman interviewed for their story, Second Lieutenant Melissa Cooling, flat out says that the men she is training with don’t want her there. General Dempsey suggested allowing women into combat units may ease the military's ongoing problem with sexual harassment: "I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally." I hope that is the case, but for now the focus by many seems to be that women cannot meet the physical demands and have no place in combat. There doesn't appear to be acceptance. The ad nauseam debate in the House last week about women's place in combat seems to prove this. The discussion still is not ‘how do we make this happen,’ but rather, ‘this shouldn't happen because woman cannot handle it.’

One Congresswoman, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), summed up this debate, perfectly in my opinion. Duckworth served in a combat capacity during her service in Iraq. She flew combat missions as a Blackhawk pilot and lost both her legs when her helicopter was hit by a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) during a 2004 mission. Since then, she’s made a full comeback, successfully ran for Congress, was appointed by President Obama to be one of the top officials in the Department of Veteran Affairs, and is now running for the Senate. Her social media response to the House Armed Services Committee debate about women in combat was this:
When Members of Congress debate women in combat, I look down at the stumps of my legs & wonder, where do they think I was - in a bar fight?
Exactly, Congresswoman! That says it all. Women can do it, and more importantly, they HAVE done it. It’s time to end the doubt and allow all female soldiers that want to be in combat the right to try, the same as the men do.