In the Army Now

In the Army Now

An instructor at West Point once told me that if she had a daughter, she would not want her to attend the Academy or join the Army. "I want my daughter to be part of organizations in which all jobs are open to her, provided she meets the qualifications," she said.

At the time, I did not fully appreciate why my instructor was saying this. I was just a 20-year-old cadet trying to make it through West Point, after all. In the ensuing years, however, I served in the Army, twice deployed to Iraq, transitioned to a civilian career, and became a mother to a baby girl. And, although the combat exclusion rule would not have precluded me from encouraging my own daughter to serve her country in uniform, I do believe that ending it will make the U.S. military a stronger institution.

Since Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s announcement last week that women will be formally allowed into combat roles, many commentators have noted that female soldiers have already seen plenty of combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. What many don’t fully appreciate is how well integrated many aspects of the military already are. In those parts of our armed forces, women and men work side by side in an environment that focuses on getting the job done, not who is doing it. That approach has been self-reinforcing and, I think, made the secretary’s decision easier.

I spent eight years in the active duty Army. During part of that time, I was a Military Police platoon leader and company commander. When conducting a mission, writing a performance evaluation, or recommending a job assignment, what I asked myself was, "Is this soldier well-trained? Can this soldier perform the tasks associated with the mission? Do I trust this soldier to do the right thing?" I did not ask myself, "What is this soldier’s gender?" It simply did not matter; what mattered was ability and aptitude.

In 2004, I was the personnel officer for a large Military Police battalion deployed in and around Baghdad. I was responsible for all of the awards, casualty reports, major disciplinary actions, and evaluation reports for several hundred men and women engaged in combat operations. Every day, female soldiers completed their missions and distinguished themselves heroically when their convoys came under enemy fire or their forward operating base was hit over and over again by mortars, just as their male counterparts did. I processed the casualty reports on female soldiers injured in the course of their duties, just as their male counterparts were. And when it came time for evaluations and discipline, I observed that nearly all female soldiers displayed professionalism, grit, assertiveness, and determination, just as their male counterparts did.

As a result of focusing on getting the job done, without regard to gender — a focus shared by countless colleagues in the many units that include both men and women — in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, female soldiers, just like their male counterparts, have had the opportunity to complete their missions, no matter how difficult, and give their all for their comrades and their country. Over the last decade in particular, during a counterinsurgency fight that eliminated the difference between a frontline and a rear area, both genders routinely faced combat. In doing so, they have been able to show that "what is this soldier’s gender?" is not an important question to ask.

My fellow MPs and I were fortunate to be part of a branch of the Army where every position in every unit was open to everyone, assuming he or she met the standards. As such, we were able to flourish in an environment where gender had no impact on job assignment. As a woman in an institution still dominated by men, this had an extraordinarily empowering effect on each of us. And it ensured the best person could be selected for a given job. Unfortunately, because of the combat exclusion rule, I also knew that the equality I enjoyed in the MP Corps was not universally shared throughout the armed forces.

I have now spent nearly five years as a civilian. During that time, I have worked with and for organizations where all that matters is whether or not you are the most qualified for a given job. This strengthens a woman’s place in the workforce and, more importantly, strengthens the organization itself. The organization can get the most out of its talent pool and benefits from a greater diversity of experience. While I fully appreciate that military service, especially in combat, differs in many, many ways from working in a civilian institution, I also believe the tenet of choosing the most qualified individual should know no bounds.

Seven weeks ago, I gave birth to a little girl. As I look upon her in my arms, I have come to believe even more strongly that she should have the same opportunities as her two-year-old brother. That if she — just like he — has the right qualifications, she can be all she can be, in whatever line of work she wants. And that, similar to my West Point instructor’s opinion, she should join institutions where her future is only limited by her dreams, her determination, her work ethic, and her ability to meet a job’s exacting standards. 

So given the personal journey I and my fellow female comrades in arms have traveled, I was thrilled this past week when I learned Secretary Panetta lifted the ban excluding women from combat. This will mean that, going forward, the women who have proven themselves on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan — and the women who came before us and will follow us — will have the same opportunity as our male counterparts. This not only empowers women. It also strengthens our military and our nation.