The US military officially lifted a ban on female soldiers serving in combat roles on Thursday and said that anyone qualified should get a chance to fight on the front lines of war regardless of their sex.
At a press conference in the Pentagon Defence Secretary Leon Panettaand General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that women had already proved themselves in action on America's battlefields and the move was simply a way of catching up with reality.
"Everyone is entitled to a chance," said Panetta, who is retiring form his post this year. At the moment women make up about 14% of the military's 1.4 million active members and more than 280,000 of them have done tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan or overseas bases where they helped support the US war effort in those countries. Indeed, some 152 women have been killed in the conflicts.
Panetta said the change was vital for the military's future success. "One of my priorities as secretary of defense has been to remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform," Panetta said. "Women are already contributing in unprecedented ways to the mission ... they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission."
The move comes at the end of a long process of opening up the army to women and minorities and on the heels of allowing gay Americans to serve openly in their units. It follows a change last February that opened some 14,500 combat-related jobs to women and paved the way for a further examination of how other barriers could be brought down.
President Barack Obama issued a statement enthusiastically welcoming the decision. "Today every American can be proud that our military will grown even stronger, with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love," he said.
However, the suggestion to do away with the bar on women in direct ground combat came from the top army commanders themselves, something that Panetta acknowledged had been crucial to its success. "They've got to support it. They've got to back it," he said.
The move could now open up some 230,000 new roles to women as long as they meet the exacting requirements for any post. Elsewhere around the world women are already allowed to serve in combat roles in countries like Germany, Australia and Canada. They are not allowed to do so in Britain's armed forces.
Pressure to allow women to serve in combat positions in America has been growing over recent years. In November 2012, four female soldiers, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, announced that they were suing the Department of Defense over its restrictions on women serving in front line warfare.
The ACLU argued that women had effectively been engaged on the combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan given the nature of those two wars and the changing notion of the 'front line'.
It also comes as the army faces inquiries into sexual assault within its ranks. On Wednesday the House Armed Services Committee held a public hearing into sexual assault in the military, prompted by outrage over a sex-with-recruits scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
Nearly 60 current and former personnel, including two men, came forward with what the Air Force considered credible reports that they were sexually abused by their drill sergeants at the base.
Dempsey said that opening up the army to women on an entirely equal basis would actually improve the army's culture and lessen such incidents. He said that in his own career he had noticed an all round improvement in culture, discipline and physical prowess since women had first been allowed to join.
"We have had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault. I believe it is because we've had separate classes of military personnel at some level," he said and added: "I have to believe the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are treat each other equally."
The move has been welcomed by many think tanks and academic experts. "The Department of Defense is recognizing women's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and acknowledging that times have changed, both in terms of the ways wars are fought and in terms of attitudes about appropriate roles for women in the forces," wrote Professor Megan MacKenzie in the respected news periodical Foreign Affairs.
The University of Sydney expert added: "The next battles for female soldiers will be ensuring that this policy is implemented effectively, stamping out any remaining sexist attitudes, and fighting to ensure that the military addresses its outstanding sexual violence problem."
U.S. Military Lauded For Creating Gender-Neutral Killing Field
WASHINGTON—Female veterans and feminist activist groups are commending the Pentagon this week following a watershed policy change that will lift the ban on women in combat roles, rendering the battlefield an equal-opportunity death zone. “The U.S. Armed Forces have been gender-neutral in their victims for years, and now they’re finally leveling the killing field for female combatants as well,” said Nadine Hynes, a retired Marine Corps Lance Corporal who was unable to add to the carnage of Iraq’s blood-soaked, limb-strewn slaughterscapes due to the Pentagon’s 1994 rule barring women from infantry and artillery roles. “Now, women will have the same opportunity to accidentally gun down innocent civilians or be ripped apart by insurgent rocket fire as men.” At press time, servicewomen were celebrating the likelihood of additional policy gains that would include the right to return from service equally haunted by their ordeals, and the right to face just as many hurdles to proper mental health care as their fellow servicemen.
Source has a better take on the story, if you ask me. The line in the first article nailed it for me - "Every American can be proud that our military can grow even stronger." I'm not.