Defense Department policy and the flaws inherent in military culture have been in the news in the last several weeks for very different reasons, each of them with a profound effect on women.
On Jan. 23, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey nullified the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule for women, put in place in 1994, paving the way for the removal of gender-based barriers to military service and theoretically unblocking paths to senior leadership often denied to women perceived by their male counterparts as lacking true mettle as a result of not having served in combat.
Secretary Panetta said the goal of removing the rule was to guarantee that positions will be granted to the “best-qualified and most capable of people, regardless of gender.”
The decision resulted from an extensive review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that called for the immediate integration of the armed forces. Last February, the military opened 14,000 new positions to women. Secretary Panetta has asked all military departments to submit detailed plans for how the new guidelines will be implemented by May 15, 2013, with the intent to put them fully in effect by Jan. 1, 2016.
Some 202,000 women serve in the military today, roughly 15 percent of the 1.4 million U.S. service personnel worldwide. Nearly 300,000 women have served over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the flip side of this empowering news is the continued flow of reports of sexual assault against military women in which commanding officers, the Pentagon, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs do not acknowledge, treat, or prosecute the perpetrators. Between 23 and 33 percent of women in the military have been the victims of some form of sexual assault according to a 2006 study by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs as compared to a statistic of 17 percent in the general population. Between 2010 and 2011, Secretary Panetta reported that there were 19,000 attacks by service members on service members, six times the number of attacks reported.
Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton has been appointed to lead the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO, where he will make reforms and provide outreach and support for victims, continuing the work of his predecessor Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertzog. Patton is known for successfully implementing the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy, implemented in 1993, that prohibited military personnel from discriminating against homosexual or bisexual members of or applicants to the Armed Forces.
A useful addition to the reform process might be to make “The Invisible War,” required watching for new military recruits. The documentary feature film, by Kirby Dick, features interviews with victims of sexual crimes in the military. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, will air on PBS in May as part of the “Independent Lens” series.