After nearly a decade, thousands of military women will finally be allowed to serve on the front lines. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the Pentagon will overturn the policy that had banned servicewomen from smaller ground-combat units—such as infantry, artillery, armor and special operations like the Navy SEALS—since 1994. More than 230,000 new positions now will be open to service women.
"Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military's mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles," says Panetta. "The department's goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."
Panetta: Diversity Champion
DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, a veteran, interviewed Panetta in 2010 on his desire for a more inclusive federal workplace, including the military. "Our mission is to gather intelligence throughout the world. …You can't get good intelligence without understanding the world that we're in, without reflecting the ethnic background of the world [and] relating to the nations that we're involved in," said Panetta during the interview, in which he discussed his experiences as a civil-rights champion and public servant. "The most fulfilling thing you can do in life is make a difference."
"This was a good move, about eight years overdue. [The ban has] been holding down the careers of women who served in combat, but many officially have been in combat-support roles for the past 10 years. It shouldn't have taken this long for policy to reflect reality," says Visconti. Visconti served as a Naval aviator and commissioned officer with the U.S. Navy from 1982 to 1990, and he now serves on the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Committee, where he has co-chaired three subcommittees regarding diversity and women's issues, reporting out to the Chief of Naval Operations. Visconti also was a driving force in pressing now-retired Admiral Michael Mullen to revise the military's discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which was repealed in 2010.
Women & Diversity in the Military
Military branches will have until January 2016 to implement the changes or to request special exemptions if they believe certain positions should remain under the ban. Congress will also have 30 days to consider the policy change. Front-line jobs could begin opening to women later this year.
"Today, by moving to open more military positions—including ground-combat units—to women, our armed forces have taken another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens," President Obama said, giving his endorsement. "This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today's military. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, including more than 150 women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan—patriots whose sacrifices show that valor knows no gender."
Women currently make up 14 percent of the country's 1.4 million active military personnel. Although women were not allowed to serve in combat officially, military women frequently had to engage in combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which blurred the roles of combat and non-combat personnel. More than 800 women were wounded, in addition to the more than 150 who were killed.
The decision is one of the last acts that Panetta will implement as Defense Secretary. Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel to assume the position for his second presidential term. Hagel is a former senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran.
Panetta is a veteran who served as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He attended Intelligence School and was Chief of Operations and Planning for Intelligence at Fort Ord prior to starting his political career. Panetta served as a legislative assistant, then Special Assistant to Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Robert Finch, and was Director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights where he worked to enforce equal-education laws during the Nixon Administration.