On January 9 General Martin E. Dempsey declared “the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.” Two weeks later, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta lifted the ban on U.S. military women fighting in combat. The time has come to eliminate all gender-based barriers to service and to resources after service in the U.S. military. Yet, unfortunately, this battle is far from over.
The number of women in the U.S. military today and the roles they serve is greater than ever. There are over 200,000 active women in the military, with more than 10,000 serving in Iraq. Women make up 14% of the military. Their role has significantly increased in the military since the Clinton administration’s decision to loosen restrictions against them. They fly combat missions, serve on fighter ships, and despite Army restrictions, they often find themselves in the midst of hostile combat. While women were legally banned from participating in combat until January 23, “the Iraq War has made a mockery of this ban. Because its battlefields are towns and roads, there is no frontline and the U.S. military is so short of troops, women are frequently thrown into jobs indistinguishably from those of the all male infantry and armor divisions."
When speaking of women’s experiences in the military, journalist Helen Benedict wrote in The Lonely Soldier, “In some ways, these are the stories of individuals. In other ways, they are the universal stories of war.” Indeed, rape is an ugly aspect of war has been documented for centuries.
Although combat positions will now be officially open to women, many women do not feel as welcomed in the military as this new equality may suggest. Sexual harassment as well as sexual assault of women in the military is documented as both rampant and poorly dealt with. Ultimately, it is all too common for women’s violations to be ignored and perpetrators to go unpunished. Statistics suggest that as high as 1 in 3 women experience sexual assault while in the military, twice the reported statistic for sexual assault among civilians. However, the military’s judicial systems remains outside of the American legal process and most perpetrators of sexual assault go unpunished.
The legal prohibition of women’s entrance in combat until this winter paired with the inability of the Army to successfully report, document, and deal with incidents of sexual assault de-legitimates these women’s experience. The silencing of these women is particularly problematic in relation to their ability to access sound mental health care. These facilities are also woefully unprepared to support women, with only six total U.S. inpatient PTSD programs for women, and few counselors trained to deal with the combination of combat trauma and sexual assault (from The Lonely Soldier).
The denial of mental health care for women who commonly experience both sexual assault and combat in the Iraq War can be extremely dangerous. Veteran survivors of sexual assault are more likely to attempt suicide, experience depression, acquire an anxiety disorder, and abuse drugs. They are also more likely to become homeless and less likely to be employed upon return. Mental health care treatment has been proven to be effective in alleviating PTSD in victims and may be vital in the process of healing after severe trauma.
Women in the military are undeniably experiencing severe trauma in the military and once veterans, they are being prevented from accessing treatment. This has been documented countless times with statistics and powerful personal narratives.
I hope that the Pentagon’s decision will be quickly implemented. But even more, I hope that this step spurs more steps forward on the path to gender equality within the U.S. military. Because right now, we are so far from there.