Sunday, February 3, 2013

DOD Women in Combat Policy Catches Up to Reality, but Gender Equality Remains Elusive

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey recently issued a memo purported to pave the way for more women to serve in direct combat.  The memo reversed the 1994 DOD “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule” which precluded women from serving in direct combat roles.  The memo also opened military occupational specialties (MOSs) previously open only to males to women. 

Though the memo has made headlines around the world it was behind the times.  It was less groundbreaking and more acknowledging reality.  Women have been serving in convoy guards and security forces for years.  These roles, in everything but name, are combat roles.  More to the point, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a turning point in warfare.  There are no more front lines.  All territories are in play.  More than 150 women have died in combat since 2001 despite DOD policy that women did not serve in combat. 

Despite the fact women already serve in combat there remain some practical difficulties to making it “official.”  Perhaps the most practical of concerns: body armor.  The body armor typically used by U.S. Army soldiers consists of an Outer Tactical Vest (OTV) and two Small Arms Protective Insert (SAPI) ballistic plates.  The plates are ceramic, very hard, and not designed for even a little female comfort.  Maybe the acknowledgment by the DOD will allow them to purchase body armor in both men’s and women’s sizes.  Neither the technology of shaping nor the female form is a recent development.

The women in the military conundrum began long before the 1994 rule.  One memo won’t be enough to put servicewomen on an even plane with servicemen.  Women in the military remain in near-constant danger of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.  Hopefully the memo is the first step of a concerted effort to realize  gender equity in our armed forces, not merely equity in theory.

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