During a joint news conference on January 24, 2013, Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey pointed out that 152 women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and that "the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality."
By eliminating the 1994 direct ground combat exclusion for women, the Pentagon paves the way for women to advance into military leadership positions that would have required combat hours. By putting military policies in place that credit when such combat service has been given, for the first time in U.S. history the path to the top will be accessible to women and gender will no longer be an obstacle.
Critics who claim the new approach will cause problems on the front lines ignore a key fact: women have been part of front line combat units on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade. Just like the men assigned to combat units, these women have been fired upon and sustained the same injuries as their male counterparts. The only difference is that the women who served in combat have been attached to combat units rather than assigned. There's an important distinction between the two.
Erin Solaro, author of the book Women in the Line of Fire, calls this "the root of the dishonorable dishonesty of the combat exclusion." In a blog post for PBS on women and war, she explains: "The combat exclusion disqualifies women from the career fields and experiences that lead overwhelmingly to high command" by prohibiting their assignment to small ground units --- "infantry, armor and artillery battalions, plus special operations forces" -- which typically see combat. Yet according to Solaro, "servicewomen can be and are 'temporarily' attached to such units" -- these same units that see combat. So what this means is "that women experience and participate in ground combat. They just don't get credit for it, because technically speaking, 'women aren't in combat.'"
For the soldier who's experienced combat while assigned, his service counts. The soldier who's attached may experience the same level of combat and may work and fight side by side with the assigned soldier, but none of that combat experience counts as combat service in the eyes of the military.
For female service members who make up 15% of the force -- over 200,000 -- this was an obstacle inherent in the system before the ban was lifted. In his opening remarks announcing the change in policy, Panetta noted that one of his priorities as Secretary of Defense had been "to remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform." This, combined with the elimination of "don't ask, don't tell," marks a turning point that will grow and strengthen every branch of the armed forces.
In ending the ban, Panetta and General Dempsey have also taken a giant step in changing the culture of the military. General Dempsey in particular stressed two important side benefits in response to a reporter's query:
One is, I graduated from West Point in 1974. It was an all-male institution. I came back in 1976 to get married, and...I watched the first class of women enter and wondered, what would that be like? I went back to teach at West Point in 1984 and found the academy a far better place than it was when I was a cadet...it had become better in almost every way, academically and -- and physically, athletically....And I attribute a good bit of that to the fact that we opened up the academy to women.
Secondly...we've had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault. I believe it's because we've had separate classes of military personnel, at some level...[W]hen you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.
Kayla Williams, a former sergeant and military intelligence linguist whose memoir Love My Rifle More Than You chronicles what it was like to be "young and female in the U.S. Army," echoed Gen. Dempsey's views in an op-ed for The Guardian:
Sexual harassment and assault, while not limited to women, still disproportionately affects us. It is my opinion that the combat exclusion policy, by formalizing women's status as second-class citizens, tacitly encouraged a climate that tolerated sexual harassment and assault of women. I believe that eliminating the policy will, in the long run, help lower the unacceptably high rates.
While Williams doesn't regard the announcement as "the end of women's journey toward full equality in the military," she acknowledges it as a "significant step forward" and adds, "President Obama's administration has just recognized in policy what has long been the ground truth: women are in combat."
"Press Briefing by Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey from the Pentagon." U.S. Department of Defense News Transcript. 24 January 2013.
Solaro, Erin. "The Combat Exclusion." POV Regarding War, PBS.org. 4 March 2010.
Williams, Kayla. "Combat ban lifted: women's long march to equality in the military." Guardian.co.uk. 24 January 2013.