In an important move forward for gender equality and women's civil liberties, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, with the unanimous support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is scheduled to announce today that all branches of the U.S. armed forces will lift the ban precluding women from serving in combat, reports USA Today this morning.
By lifting the ban, Secretary Panetta is expected to open approximately 230,000 positions to military women, allowing female officers greater access to brigade level commands and the highest ranks of military service.
The role of women in combat. Women have functionally served in combat alongside their male counterparts in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars for the past decade, and have distinguishing themselves in that role, according to today’s Phildelphia Inquirer. Some have argued, however, that the ban -- which has existed for 19 years -- had the effect of officially shunting women into non-combat roles, such as military police, intelligence and medics. Positions that were more desirable for military recognition, promotion and career advancement -- such as infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers and special operations units -- were, in most instances, unavailable to women.
Thus, while the ban was originally intended to protect women from the most hazardous aspects of armed combat, it created a different type of hazard: second class citizenship, according to the commentary filed by U-T San Diego yesterday evening.
Equal recognition for equal sacrifice. Regardless of the intent of the ban, the sacrifices made by women in the battlefield have been no less than those made by men, observed Marine First Sergeant Peggy (Ret.). Speaking in Reuters interview filed late last night, she argued:
Such arguments have been heard by members of Congress, such as Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee, who is quoted by .USA Today as saying, “The reality of today's battlefield is that all who serve are in combat." Further, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz -- himself a former pilot held prisoner during the Vietnam War -- echoed similar sentiments when he observed to USA Today:
American women are already serving in harm's way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces. As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world.
A lawsuit and evolving preconceptions. According to the Huffington Post, the demand for equal recognition for equal sacrifice ultimately led four military women -- a U.S. Marine Corps first lieutenant, a Marine Corps Reserves captain, a U.S. Army Reserves staff sergeant, and a major in the U.S. Air National Guard -- to sue Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last November.
The women asserted violations of their Fifth Amendment rights and sought to overturn the armed forces’ ban on women in combat, according to a report from KVUE yesterday..That lawsuit, along with evolving assumptions about women in combat, and the need to staff the nation’s all-volunteer military with the best available personnel regardless of gender, have led to Secretary Panetta's impending announcement rescinding the ban.
Implementation. The armed forces must now implement the changes that will come with women in full combat units. Some positions may open as early as this year, while others -- such as special-operations forces, Navy SEALS and the Army's Delta Force -- are being evaluated. Because those specialized units demand physical conditioning beyond the capabilities of most men, the services will have until January 2016 to determine whether those positions should remain closed to women.