Viewpoint: The Department of Defense Took Too Long on Women in Combat

The ten year delay between on-the-ground reality and official policy shows a troubling bureaucracy

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Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images

From left: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey announce lifting the ban on women serving in front line combat roles on Jan. 24, 2013.

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the military would be lifting the policy preventing women from filling billets in units tasked with direct combat. As an Afghanistan veteran, I found myself particularly apathetic to the news—those of us who have served know this is an anti-climactic adjustment that comes so late that it shows a tremendous lag in upper-level decision making. The military used to be at the forefront of progress—the U.S. Armed forces were racially integrated five years before the landmark court decision Brown v Board of Education—but in the last two decades, I wonder if policy is influencing front lines or simply following suit decades later?

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A veteran will attest to the 99.5 percent of Americans who have not deployed to combat that bullets and bombs don’t check our bio-data before they pierce our vehicles. Our insurgent enemy never agreed to let the medical helicopters and finance units have clear passage, and only fight the combat arms units on the ground. Rather, our enemy is ingenious and resourceful. Knowing well that going head-to-head with the American infantry is a losing game for pretty much anyone, our enemy instead goes for the jugular of our support system: logistics, food, fuel, supplies, medical attention, and even our care packages. The units charges with these functions are designed to sustain a defensive posture, but in today’s environment, they are forced to operate offensively and in direct combat as a means of survival. These are also units led by and filled with women warriors.

The decision to lift the ban was absolutely the right thing to do, but what concerns me, as a veteran with many loved ones still in the force, is how long it took us to get there. It bothers me that we had to wait more than a decade—beginning from a time when we had women leading units into the invasion of Iraq—to acknowledge the gender-agnostic battlefield with official policy. It bothers me that, only after ten years of war, did we decide that I was mature enough to serve in combat with a homosexual soldier watching my six o’clock. Why did it take us ten years of war for us to realize just how many veterans we were going to have to reintegrate into the workforce, to the point where Wal-Mart—not the U.S. government—is the only institution capable of absorbing us?

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The institutional problem here is that those charged with shaping military social welfare are rendering themselves moot by affirming or removing policies decades after the operational force has already taken the initiative to do so. We need our government to lead these cultural shifts, not simply follow with paperwork behind the decisions we make on the ground. Especially because those of us in the fight move quickly, it’s in the best interests of our higher authorities to match their decision-making with the nature of the modern military force.

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Perhaps I’m naïve. Perhaps this is actually the quickest possible pace that our policies can move. But from my perspective, when my soldiers went on patrol, they didn’t get the luxury of bureaucratic insulation; having multiple layers of protection to absorb risk so that the engine continues to idle without abrupt change. But when the lives of those on the line are directly controlled by a bureaucracy, I expect it to move swiftly and aggressively to accommodate the dynamics of the modern battlefield. Ten years of policy memos and focus groups is too slow, especially when the consequences of the decisions of civilian leaders will shape our force for the next decade of security.

So for my sisters in arms who have been fantastic representatives of our nation’s military, I salute you and thank you for your service. For my countrymen who are slowly adapting to the nature of what it means to be an American service member, I welcome you to the fight. Try and keep up.