“Liz — Are You For Real?”

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Following last week’s decision by the Pentagon to change some of the conditions under which servicewomen can serve in a limited number of combat roles, Fox News contributor Liz Trotta attacked the Department of Defense for increasing spending on support programs for victims of sexual assault.  Trotta proffers that “servicewomen want to be warriors and victims simultaneously.”  She continued, “What did they expect?  These people are in close contact.”

With a history of making incendiary comments without providing empirical research or a well-reasoned understanding of complex issues, Trotta essentially says all military men are rapists.  Her comments are sound bait.  As if it is ok for anyone to be raped, particularly women who chose to serve their country.  Liz, are you for real?

Women have been operating side by side with the infantry and other ground combat forces for the last decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of operation. These new rules or more appropriately changes to the DOD ground combat exclusion policy do not mean that women will be fighting with the infantry for the first time.  What they do away with are the Army and Marine Corps’ services collocation policies.  They allow women to serve on battalion level staffs of ground combat units.  Women have been in these roles, but not officially acknowledged.  It is a minor, but necessary change.  It however does not address the fundamental policy of opening ground combat units and occupations to women.

As we know in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military continues to develop new doctrines as it fights an unconventional enemy.  One of the recurring lessons learned is that the historic notions of a forward combat zone and a safer rear echelon support area are not as applicable to these theaters of operations.  The two are often indistinguishable, and military women and men are everything on the battlefield.  The “front line” is a 360-dgree circles and women are often combat leaders, leading soldiers in harms’ way.

During the last two years, the development and deployment of Female Engagement Teams (FETs) in the Marine Corps and Cultural Support Teams in the Army operating in Afghanistan with Special Forces are being made a permanent fixture because the SOF commanders have learned that there are conditions under which it is good to have women as part of the team–and not only in Muslim countries.

While this changing dynamic of the battlefield provides a growing opportunity for women in the Army, in certain ways they are still limited.

Conventional wisdom and current law prevent women, no matter how able, from serving gin units with direct ground combat missions—Infantry, Armor, Special Forces and specifically Field Artillery, Air Defense Artillery, and Engineer units.  The justifications for this exclusion include that women are not fit for combat and battled stress because they lack the emotional stability and physical strength.  The media often has proffered that Americans would not stand to see their daughters coming home in body bags.  The purposed fear and outcry of a women’s violent death from enemy fire has not materialized during the last decade we have been at war.  At least no more than it has for a man—we all suffer a terrible loss when we lose a Soldier.  In reality, the strained Armed Forces need women in the fight.  Circumstance have eclipsed arguments, and few in the military and the government are anxious to rekindle the debate.

More than 230,000 women have been deployed, nearly 12 percent of the force.   Similar to their male contemporaries, women are demonstrating selfless service, courage and dedication to the mission.

With increasing numbers of women returning from the war zone, these veterans are of great interest to the mainstream media.  Three of the hot topics regarding these service members are women in combat, sexual assault, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  All deserve attention, broad perspective and action.

It is time to stop debating whether women should be in combat.  They are in combat and have been for more than 10 years.  Current Army policy bars women from being assigned to combat branches whose mission is “to engage in direct combat, or which collocate routinely with units assigned a direct combat mission.”  So instead women “accompany” various units whose mission is to engage an enemy. This DOD change now permits servicewomen assignment or collocation in staff level position of units whose mission is direct ground combat.

This issue is profoundly moral. Combat is the core of the profession of arms. The military has an absolute right to expect servicewomen to engage in combat, as female Americans have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.  Women and men have an equal stake in the defense of the republic.

Correlating women in combat and levels of rape and sexual violence in the military are wholly inaccurate and inflammatory at best.  Less than a quarter of reported rapes occur in theaters of military operations and combat zones.  75% occur at US military installations around the world.  In addition, half of sexual trauma survivors being treated by the Veterans Administration are men.  Being in an all male unit does not protect service members from sexual predators.  Rape and sexual violence do occur in units without women.

The United States would be well served by increasing the number of sharp minds at the planning and negotiating tables. To do this, the ground combat exclusion policy must be abolished to grant women the opportunity to gain the same experience as their male counterparts. If abolished, it will take a generation, at least 30 years, for military women to gain the appropriate tactical, operation and strategic experience. The president needs to select a team of senior military leaders that reflect the make-up of the 21st century Armed Forces and that can represent a part of our population and resource pool that is important economically, diplomatically, and militarily. Are we going to continue to exclude half the population?

Donna McAleer of Park City, Utah is a 1987 West Point graduate and former Army officer, with an MBA from the University of Virginia. She advocates empowering women and is the award-winning author of Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line (Fortis Publishing, 2010).