Best Defense

What’s in a name? A lot, when it comes to military equality, recruiting and readiness

While the integration of Marine boot camp remains in question, one aspect of Secretary of Navy Mabus’s order to the Marines and the Navy should be welcomed — to review gender-specific language in the services’ job titles. This is a review all the services should consider on three counts — equality, readiness, and tradition.

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By Capt. Ronald LaBrec, U.S. Coast Guard
Best Defense guest columnist

While the integration of Marine boot camp remains in question, one aspect of Secretary of Navy Mabus’s order to the Marines and the Navy should be welcomed — to review gender-specific language in the services’ job titles. This is a review all the services should consider on three counts — equality, readiness, and tradition.

Removing “man” from titles removes a constant reminder of a time when women were not allowed to serve in the armed forces. It abolishes one suggestion that, even though they can now serve, women are not truly sought by the military. Does an institution truly value a female service member if it requires her to describe her role in male terms such as engineman, mortarman, and damage controlman?

Modernizing arcane military job titles may also help attract new recruits. The services are rightly concerned about their ability to obtain enough qualified recruits in the future to maintain a ready all-volunteer force. Amid an increasing gap between civilian and military cultures, they are devoting significant effort to appeal to youth in an increasingly competitive recruiting market.

Future recruiting challenges require broad action by the military and part of it should be to speak the language of those they seek to inform and influence. My time in recruiting made clear the lack of knowledge young people have about the military. Rather than explain to a jargon-saturated young person, who may already struggle to see themselves in uniform, what a yeoman or a damage controlman is, simply calling the specialty by a common name — human resources specialist or construction and repair technician – removes one potential barrier to recruiting. As Ronald Reagan reportedly said, “If you are explaining, you are losing.”

The use of plain language for military jobs that are similar to civilian roles could also benefit those leaving the military. Amid all the programs and talk about helping veterans find employment, an easy place to start is increasing the chance their titles will be more easily understood by future employers. Helping veterans gain post-military employment does not only keep faith with those who served, it is vital to recruiting a ready force. Years of research, funding, and programs promoting college, as well as a decade of exposure of the difficulties encountered by some returning veterans, have resulted in fewer young people or their parents seeing the military as a viable way to learn relevant skills or become successful. DOD research has found that “higher education goals among youth have translated into fewer youth strongly considering military service after high school.” Aiding the success of those leaving the military is a vital piece to ensuring others join.

There are clearly cultural and practical impediments to renaming military jobs. Some will argue that man refers to all humans and is etymologically gender-neutral, thus removing it is not needed. This argument is unsuitable in the context of equality and team cohesion. A man is commonly accepted to be a male adult.

While some jobs may preclude conversion to civilian terms, modernizing them can still benefit men and women who serve in those fields. A reconnaissance specialist sounds much more highly trained and savvy than a reconnaissance man. It’s simple marketing — for the recruit, the veteran and the service.

And while some may argue that traditional titles such as seaman, airman, coastguardsman, and infantryman do not have suitable alternatives, updating those that do will remove barriers to service and inclusion that will strengthen the force. It does not have to be all or nothing. At the end of the day changes should be considered on their benefits versus the drawbacks.

The words we use have meaning — literal and suggestive. They can build bridges or barriers. Military members care deeply about their affiliations and titles, and changing them can be emotionally charged. But the services have changed titles before. If the military truly values all its people, desires to fill its ranks with bright and eager young Americans, and wants all members connected by traditions worthy of its strong, adaptable and meritocratic heritage, it should choose its words carefully.

Captain Ronald A. LaBrec, U.S. Coast Guard, is a career officer specializing in maritime safety and security, and crisis response. He serves as a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and recently commanded the Coast Guard’s recruiting command. This essay represents his personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Coast Guard.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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