By Donna McAleer
Best Defense giant slalom correspondent
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff's unanimous recommendation, last week signed the repeal of the combat exclusion policy of 1994, opening more than 200,000 military jobs to women. This was a military decision endorsed by politicians about military readiness, strategic decision-making, and national security.
More than a year ago, the Army chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, said, "We need their talent. This is about managing talent. We have incredibly talented females who should be in those positions." This reflected an October 2010 decision by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to open two classes of nuclear submarines to women.
Ground combat is paramount in the Army. The Army selects the majority of its senior leaders from ground combat branches. The 1994 combat exclusion policy prohibited women from serving in such units. This meant its most significant jobs, high command positions (division, corps, and chief of staff), only went to men with combat arms unit experience.
With Secretary Panetta's decision, the law has now caught up to reality. The exclusion policy didn't keep women out of combat. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated this self-evident truth: bullets, RPGs, and IEDs know no gender. The policy did prevent women from officially gaining battlefield experience required for promotion to high command positions directly responsible for national security, e.g., combat command.
In his letter of recommendation to Secretary Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said work remained regarding proper performance standards for those new military roles. He also listed "goals and milestones," with quarterly progress updates.
This is the key to successful integration -- setting physical and mental standards based on job requirements, and physical and mental capability, not gender. Most of the opposition to allowing women in combat arms branches focus on doubts about women possessing the requisite strength and stamina and/or whether the presence of women dilutes unit cohesion. These arguments have been used previously -- against the integration of African-Americans, against integrating women into the regular force in the 1970s, and most recently against gays and lesbians. Each time the military has emerged stronger.
No one suggests a lowering of standards. And the unit cohesion argument is really about sex. Will women and men in mixed company have consensual sex? The military has laws on the books that prohibit relationships that could cause problems within the unit -- similar to both norms and laws in the civilian world regulating the workplace environment. The primary reason has always been that emotional entanglements between soldiers can lead to jealousy, result in favoritism, and prevent soldiers from carrying out their duties impartially -- particularly in a life or death situation. While in the civilian world, a workplace relationship will only kill your career.
Recently, the military has strengthened its laws regarding coercive sex recognizing a significant problem persists with rape and sexual assault. However, correlating women in combat with levels of military rape and sexual violence are inaccurate and inflammatory. Less than a quarter of reported rapes occur in theaters of military operations and combat zones. Being in an all-male unit is no protection from sexual predators. Half of sexual trauma survivors being treated by the Veterans Administration are men.
General Dempsey indicated the persistence of sexual assault in the military is linked partially to the military's separate classes of personnel -- male "warriors" versus everyone else, including women. Lifting the combat exclusion policy and treating the genders equally, he says, is more likely to lead people to treat each other equally.
Today women make up nearly 15 percent of the 1.4 million strong active-duty forces. The United States has been in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq longer than in any previous war. More than 280,000 American women have engaged in combat operations there. It is not unreasonable to think that some have engaged in sexual relationships. Yet, there have been no waves of "get me out of here" pregnancies, no orgies, and no combat failures. In short, our men and women in uniform have behaved as military professionals.
Secretary Panetta's decision is a move in the right direction. Servicewomen now have the opportunity to gain the same experience as their male counterparts. It will take at least 20 years for servicewomen to gain the appropriate escalating combat command experience. But the United States will be well served by the increase in the number of sharp minds at the planning and negotiating tables.
Service to country and in combat has never been about gender, it's about the job.
Donna McAleer is a former congressional candidate for Utah's 1st District, a West Point graduate, an Army veteran, a mother, and the author of Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point's Long Gray Line (Fortis Publishing, 2010).
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.