Defense Secretary Lifts Ban on Women in Combat


Women Marines serving in Afghanistan. PHOTO: United States Marine Corps
Women Marines serving in Afghanistan. PHOTO: United States Marine Corps

Recently, we have heard in the newspaper that women can now serve in combat roles in the United States Armed Forces. But that is not the whole picture. Women were not completely restricted from serving in combat roles before women were allowed to serve.

Near the end of WWI, women were allowed to serve as nurses in the military, but not in combat roles. In 1941, they were permitted to serve in other non-combat roles in the military like pilots on non-combat missions, ambulance drivers, mechanics and administrators. In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Act allowed the secretaries of military branches to decide which roles women could serve, provided that women could not serve in most roles on Navy ships, nor in combat roles in the Navy or Air Force. From then on, more and more roles were opened up to women.

On January 24th, 2012, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles of the armed forces entirely, opening up many other roles women were not allowed to serve in before. “Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield,” Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference. “The department’s goal is that the mission is met with the most capable people, regardless of gender.” Panetta will allow the military service chiefs until January 2016 to defend whether or not women should be excluded from any more demanding and deadly roles in the armed forces.

However, many women who fought in the armed forces before Panetta’s lifting of the ban say that they have already been fighting in combat roles, even on the front lines. Therefore, Panetta’s decision just makes the reality official. “There was absolutely no difference between my duties and those of my male peers,” said Sergeant Carolyn Schapper, who served in Iraq in 2005. “We went on the same missions and drove the same vehicles.” Sergeant Rebekah Havrilla, who was deployed in 2006, said, “I saw combat repeatedly. We spent days on end near the border with Pakistan engaged in missions. If that’s not a front-line experience, I don’t know what is.”

Still, not everybody agrees with Panetta’s decision. “I don’t see the need for it,” said Mackubin Owens, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. “Apparently, the impetus has to do with the idea of fairness, but there hasn’t been enough discussion about making the military more effective. Men and women are different, and there are physical strength issues.” Many opposed to Panetta’s lifting of the ban believe that women will not be strong enough to endure the work that some men would be able to do, but are not opposed to the principle of fairness behind it.

Nevertheless, Leon Panetta’s lifting of the ban on women in combat was a big step for equality within and the strengthening of the US military. But many realize that the change was just one part of the United States’ long stride towards full equality.

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