Friday January 25, 2013

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that women would now be able to serve in combat, saying they are integral in the military’s success and have shown a willingness to fight, and die if necessary, alongside their male counterparts.

"There are no guarantees of success," said Panetta. "Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance."

Many people, especially women who have served, de facto, in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, applauded the decision.

Laura Cannon, a 2001 West Point graduate who served in Iraq, said it’s about time the Department of Defense acknowledged the reality on the ground.

"The landscape of combat has changed so much that front lines are ambiguous," she told NBC News.

As Lolita Baldor, writing for the Associated Press, noted, "The necessities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan ... propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached ... to battalions. And these conflicts, where battlefield lines are blurred and insurgents can lurk around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat."

So the new policy from the Secretary Panetta formalizes what we all know has been going on since at least the beginning of the war in Iraq: Women have been under fire, whether in combat or not.

Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel, and more than 280,000 have been sent into, or served in support of, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the 6,600 Americans killed in the two wars, 152 of them have been women.

Of course, the critics weren’t far behind Panetta’s announcement.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, a former Marine infantryman wrote women in battle would be detrimental to the mission.

"It would be distracting and potentially traumatizing to be forced to be naked in front of the opposite sex, particularly when you body has been ravaged by lack of hygiene," he wrote. "The relationship among members of a unit can be irreparably harmed by forcing them to violate societal norms."

To which we quote Air Force veteran Terri Kaas, who told NBC News "If the men can’t respect women for the job they’re doing, maybe these men shouldn’t be in the military."

Military leaders now have to decide, and defend their reasoning, if any jobs should still only be open to men. Across the four service branches, there are about 237,000 positions women can’t serve in -- infantry, artillery, on small fast-fast attack submarines and the elite forces, such as the Navy SEALs.

While Sen. John McCain said he was concerned that physical standards will not be lowered, "Women are fully qualified to carry out that mission."

Writing for Wired, Spencer Ackerman noted many of the jobs in the military require a high level of physical fitness, such as loading 50-pound rounds into a tank.

"When the Army and Marine Corps explore job openings for women, that’s what they will test -- whether a soldier or marine can do that, repeatedly in relevant and realistic conditions, regardless of gender," he wrote.

But in addition to allowing women to officially serve in combat, the military must address the epidemic of sexual violence committed against women warriors by their male counterparts.

"Rape and sexual assault should not be ‘incidental’ to military service," wrote the Washington Post’s Michelle Bernard.

This while the military is investigating the sexual abuse and harassment of new recruits during basic training, at the nation’s military academies and in active duty units.

Allowing women to serve in combat might help defeat the attitude that fosters sexual assault, said Army General Martin Dempsey.

"The more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally," he said.

Social conservatives will say the military is not the place for "these experiments," but they were wrong when they said the same thing about desegregation of the ranks and wrong when they said it about allowing openly gay Americans to serve in uniform.

If a person -- despite his or her gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion -- is willing to take up arms in defense of our country, they deserve the right to prove they can do what’s required of them.

As Sen. McCain said, "It’s the right thing to do."