There's always a great deal of hoopla at those press events surrounding the signing of new policies and legislation in Washington. Sometimes when you scan the faces of those involved, the smiles are fixed and the cheer reads false -- but it's a politically expedient move and so mote it be.
But when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey addressed reporters and news outlets prior to signing the document that would remove the ban excluding women from combat, both men spoke with honesty and strong conviction.
Secretary Panetta told of his visits to ground troops and hospitals and his conversations with service members: "[E]veryone, men and women alike -- everyone is committed to doing the job. They're fighting and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality."
These and other words of his have been widely quoted, but perhaps Gen. Dempsey's were more moving if less polished.
His two most heartfelt first-person observations came during the Q&A following the news conference. He told one story of his landing in Baghdad as the commander of the 1st Armored Division and then boarding an armored Humvee. In a mood of camaraderie, he slapped the leg of his turret gunner assuming he was a man, only to have the gunner introduce herself as Amanda. Another story involved his return to West Point years after his graduation, and his opinion that with the admission of women, "it had become better in almost every way."
News outlets have found and given air time to dissenting voices -- as they always do -- but this was an internal decision that reflects the changing face of the military. Even Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said it was "the right thing to do." McCain, along with Panetta and Gen. Dempsey, stressed the need to maintain physical standards so that soldiers met the necessary qualifications with no reduction in expectations based on gender.
Women have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 152 body bags of female soldiers attest to that fact. Saying that women aren't already in combat disrespects their service and their commitment to protecting the rest of us who aren't on the battlefield. With this decision, the military is finally giving credit where credit is due.
Female marine recruit training at Parris Island © Scott Olson/Getty Images
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