Women account for almost 15 percent of our 1.4 million active duty service members. In the last 10 years, more than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 144 killed and at least 860 wounded.
Despite this, the Defense Department has continued to prohibit women from taking part in direct combat. Two military women, Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Haring of the U.S. Army Reserve, have decided to challenge this policy and file suit, arguing that these kinds of gender restriction policies are discriminatory and unconstitutional.
At the same time, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), has introduced legislation into the Senate that seeks to end the ground combat exclusion policy for women. The Gender Equality in Combat Act would allow female service members to take front line infantry combat roles right beside men.
Challenging Old Mindsets
Formal combat experience is essential to get into the highest levels of military leadership. The Defense Department has continually denied women the right to occupy these positions, citing a ruling from 1994 that highlights the “physically demanding tasks that would exclude the vast majority of women.” Not allowing female soldiers the opportunity to serve in combat positions can prevent them from progressing in their careers or earning as much as their male counterparts.
Both of the women involved in this recent suit have exemplary military records. Sgt. Maj. Baldwin has given 25 years of service to our nation’s Armed Forces, stationed everywhere from South Korea to Germany to Iraq. Colonel Haring is a West Point graduate with 28 years of service. Both of these women claim they have been denied advancement based on the fact that they lacked combat experience.
Sen. Gillibrand has made a similar argument for her legislation, saying it was written for the women “who want nothing more than to take a leadership role on the frontlines defending our country,” according to the Huffington Post.
“We know that women can do anything they put their minds to, and they are already fighting and dying for our country shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in uniform,” she said. “When all of our best and brightest serve in combat our country is stronger for it.”
Looking to the Future
At the same time, the military has been making progress toward gender equality.
In February, the Pentagon opened up several jobs that had been previously closed off to women, such as combat medic, tank mechanic and field artillery radar operator, all of which take women closer to the front lines.
Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt recently became the first woman to take command of a combat fighter wing. Col. Leavitt also became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot in 1993.
“It helped that once we started flying, people began to see that we were there because of our abilities and not our gender,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In much the same way that homosexuals served in the military long before the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” so, too, have women already proven themselves on the battlefield. If we want to maintain our edge as the strongest military in the world, we need to make sure we are putting the best people possible in each position, regardless of race, creed or gender.
Photo courtesy of familymwr