With the expected announcement today by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the United States military is lifting the ban on women serving in combat, the Obama administration is following through on a vision of full equality in American society that the president laid out in his inaugural address earlier this week.
While it is a monumental move for its symbolism, women have actually been serving in combat roles for years in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 20,000 women have served in those two wars, with more than 800 being wounded and more than 130 being killed in action.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the decision was a “historic step for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation.”
Perhaps the biggest effect of the decision will be to fully open the military for career advancement for women, who have been held back from significant promotions because of the combat ban. Even though many of them might have served in combat roles, the ban prevented them for being recognized and rewarded for it.
It is significant that the impetus for the change came from the military itself, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and not from the White House or civilian pressure — though there have been lawsuits filed over the ban, such as one by the ACLU in November on behalf of four service women. One of the women, Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air National Guard helicopter pilot, had her copter shot down and was wounded on the ground as she returned fire — but she could not seek combat leadership positions because the Defense Department did not count her experience as combat.
A military official said the change would be implemented “as quickly as possible,” although the Pentagon is allowing until January 2016, for final decisions.
Though each branch of the military will have to come up with an implementation plan in the next several months, the military wants to implement the change as quickly as possible, an official told the New York Times. If a branch of the military wants to prohibit women from serving in a specific job, it will have to ask the defense secretary for an exemption and make a strong case for it — which is the opposite of the way it works.
“To implement these initiatives successfully and without sacrificing our war-fighting capability or the trust of the American people, we will need time to get it right,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a Jan. 9 letter to Defense Secretary Panetta that was obtained by the Times.
Panetta does not need a ruling by Congress to lift the ban. If members of Congress disagree, they would need to pass legislation to stop it. That is considered unlikely.
“It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the committee, said the decision “reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country.”
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has pushed for lifting the ban, saw “a proud day for our country” and an important step in recognizing “the brave women who are already fighting and dying.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who served with the National Guard in Iraq, told CNN the move was a “major step that is long overdue.”
Asked whether this move was merely semantics because front lines are constantly shifting and disappearing in today’s world, and women already have been in combat situations, Gabbard said, “I think so.”
“When we look at, for example, two women, the first two women who earned Silver Stars since World War II, one was a military police sergeant, another was a medic,” she said. “And they both were operating on the front lines per se, under fire, under extreme duress, shoulder to shoulder with their male and female counterparts, and exhibiting great courage and heroism and saving the lives of their brothers and sisters.”
While most hailed the decision, conservative voices came out against it. Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee claimed the move could detract from the military’s role in protecting the country.
“Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness,” the group’s president, Penny Nance, told Reuters.