On April 28, 1993, the Combat Exclusion Policy that prohibited women from taking combat aircraft assignments was finally lifted by then-Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Frank B. Kelso was the first to act on this order, placing the Navy ahead of the other services, and opening up opportunities to women who wanted to fly fighters and live their dreams of military careers out on the leading edge.
When that combat exclusion clause was lifted, I was at the top of my flight-school class, fully qualified and positioned to go fly fighters. I was one of the first women to become a United States Navy combat pilot assigned to fly the prized F-14A Tomcat on and off of aircraft carriers.
Being one of the first women to fly a combat fighter aircraft, I quickly learned to recognize the difference between effective, fearless leadership and poor leadership. Strong leaders do not permit witch hunts, react emotionally to problems that surface in the media, or “slow-roll” policy implementation.
What makes policy changes successful is strong leadership.
Now, nearly two decades later, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has declared that the U.S. military is lifting the ban on women serving in combat. The move means more than 230,000 positions in the Army, Navy and Marines can now be filled by women.
This is incredibly validating because the change originated from within the military, upon the recommendation of Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Lifting this ban is about increasing military effectiveness. If we want the most effective fighting force, we need to recruit and assign the most qualified individuals for the job. But it will also create a new proving ground for the military’s leadership in the weeks, months and years ahead.
In counter-insurgency operations (COIN), there is no distinction between what the front line is, and isn’t. Many women have served and are currently serving in combat as “temporary attachments” with Female Engagement Teams to infantry units, security patrols, interpreters and other positions that constantly put them in the direct line of fire.
The reality is that women are currently in combat roles in both Afghanistan and Iraq that are not formally designated as such. But without documented combat time, these women are simply less promotable. The end result is that the military’s “combat exclusion” policies have kept women out of critical leadership roles and created a formidable “brass ceiling.”
Fortunately, since news of the impending change last week, I haven’t heard much substantive opposition to women holding combat jobs. What I have heard are the same old arguments against expanded roles for military women-and while they make for salacious television sound bites, they ignore the realities at hand.
One such topic that continues to dominate mainstream media is the idea of physical strength and “equal” physical standards. What I have not heard one person yet address, is that equal standards do not currently exist for the men. Look no further than the “normalized” Physical Fitness Test for those in the Marine Corps. To pass the run you get additional minutes the older you get. There is a curve.
There needs to be one standard that supports mission readiness. Varying fitness expectations automatically sets women soldiers apart and supports a perception that they are less capable than men.
In truth, physical strength is but one element of ground combat. Leadership skills, mental toughness, resilience, aptitude, courage and discipline are also what women bring to the fight.
And we all need to guard against making judgments based on perceptions and not on reality. These are leadership challenges that I see every day.
In an article I wrote for the Huffington Post last year I summed up the issue like this: “Major policy changes are where the most critical senior leadership challenges begin. This is especially true when a policy change significantly alters the military’s social norm … and as will be the case when women are permitted to serve in front-line ground combat forces …”
The military needs to continue looking for ways to leverage top talent. Lifting the ban on women in combat was the right thing to do for the United States, for our national security and to ensure America has the most efficient, effective, capable fighting force available. No longer will commanders be limited to a talent pool that excludes thousands of ready, willing, and more-than-able soldiers.
With fearless leadership, this policy should be implemented successfully and with little disruption. After more than a decade at war, with mothers, daughters, and sisters already serving in many of these jobs—it’s about time.