Ban on women in combat lifted
Last month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that he would be lifting the ban on women in combat roles, a rule first recognized by the Pentagon in 1994. The decision doesn’t change much, since women have been in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the legal recognition of women’s service in combat opens up the possibility of better promotions and higher recognition.
Many people have hailed this decision as a large step towards gender equality in our military. Ben Seipel, a captain in the U.S. Army and an instructor at Cornell ROTC, said that along with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” this was one of the greatest announcements of his military career.
“I think the Army and the Department of Defense in general took a look at what’s been happening in the recent two wars over the past decade, with the lines being really blurred between what’s a combat job and what’s not been a combat job,” Seipel said. “We’ve just had hundreds of examples of women performing in combat and doing everything that their male counterparts are doing.”
Seipel sees the decision as an opportunity for the military, especially because he considers some of the women he served with as an aviation officer his best soldiers. He thinks that the ban has limited the military’s resources by restricting military women, including many of his own soldiers.
“We were actually limiting plenty of talented people that would actually go into the infantry or go into these jobs and do a better job,” Seipel said. “And now we’re opening it up so it’s going to be more competitive and there’s going to be a larger pool for talent.”
Military chiefs agreed that it was time to formally recognize women serving in combat in both the Iraq and Afghan wars, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey sent a letter to Panetta on Jan. 9 relaying the thoughts of those chiefs. In response, Panetta reported his decision to lift the ban, but the military ultimately has until January 2016 to finalize their implementation.
Many female members of the military have been quoted as saying that this doesn’t change much for their military career. Shannon Roemer, a senior nursing student enrolled in Elmira College’s ROTC program, feels the same way. She explained that women have a large role in combat already, but since the ban has been lifted, there has been more media attention and recognition of the women who are serving.
“It shouldn’t matter if you’re male or female,” Roemer said. “You’re wearing the uniform. And that’s the whole point of the uniform, is that it’s not gender specific.”
Roemer also said that women have a large role in combat because culturally, they are the only soldiers who can talk to Afghani women in order to gain intelligence and address their needs. She believes that the military is taking steps towards gender equality, which in her mind is fantastic.
She believes that the biggest aspect of women being in the army is that they have the same job as their male counterparts. As long as that job gets accomplished, women should not be treated any differently.
“That’s the most important thing, that we get the job done that we need to get done, and we do it in a professional way, and that everyone earns the respect that they deserve,” said Roemer. “And I hope that women, just because they take a more active role in combat, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all one team, one fight.”
The ban was challenged in November 2012 in a federal lawsuit because women who served in combat were not recognized and could not receive leadership positions. One of the functions of the lawsuit is to create greater promotional opportunity for the women already serving, as well as those who will join soon.
Dr. Zillah Eisenstein, a retired Ithaca College professor who has written multiple books on women in the Afghan War, recently posted an opinion piece on Al Jazeera called “Female Militarism: Band of Sisters?”
“To equate opening combat to women that already was having women in these roles is a far cry from equality,” said Dr. Eisenstein. “Until you start talking about the sexual violation of women and violence towards women, this whole idea of equality and treating women the same, that’d be great, let’s treat women the same.”
Because there are such high rates of sexual assault in the military, and because the women who report it are often reprimanded or not taken seriously, Dr. Eisenstein considers this decision to be less substantial than many people believe.
“Something has changed. And I do think that the little bit that has changed matters,” she said. “But then to try to say, what is a kind of danger is thinking it’s more than a little bit and also that it’s sufficient.”
The decision to keep women out of combat, or at least for women in combat to not be officially recognized, has been an implicit theme in the military since long before it was explicitly stated in 1994. Dr. Eisenstein said that although women are now officially unable to be denied a combat position, it doesn’t change their role in the military or why they joined in the first place.
“That’s the part to me that really is a violation here—it’s the idea that so often the realm of the military and women in it is seen as liberatory,” she said. “And so many of the women are there because that’s the only job they could get.”
The ban on women in combat denied many women the recognition they deserved, especially in terms of promotions based on experience. The decision to repeal the ban shows an awareness of gender inequality within the United States’ Armed Forces, but ultimately does not ensure equal treatment for the women who serve.
Kaley Belval sophomore documentary production major who is starting a band of sisters and rocking out on the banjo. Email her at kbelval1[at]ithaca.edu