As a Marine Corps veteran, the month of November carries a great deal of significance for me. Nov. 10 is the celebration of the Marine Corps birthday. Nov. 11 is Veterans Day, of course. And Nov. 14 marks the day I stepped off the bus and onto the iconic yellow footprints at Parris Island in 1994. It was my first day of boot camp and the beginning of my journey as a United States Marine.
I served in the Marines for a decade. I enlisted as a private and left military service as a captain. I deployed both on ship and on shore, on humanitarian missions and in combat. But when I reflect on my service there is one duty assignment I treasure the most. It is a job that among the ranks of the elite Marine infantry only a handful have been fortunate enough to experience: I got to command both men and women in a gender-integrated infantry training unit.
Working with women might not sound like that big of a deal, but in the Marines it is. The U.S. military is the largest employer in the nation to have institutionalized gender discrimination through policies that deny women the opportunity to compete for jobs that they are otherwise qualified for.
In my experience, the women I commanded performed as well or better than their male counterparts when given the opportunity. And, despite what many think, they were held to the same standards as the men. When I took command I, too, was skeptical that women could meet such a challenge, an attitude I developed after being steeped for years in the Marines’ male-only infantry culture. But once I saw firsthand that women could accomplish infantry tasks without needing lower standards to succeed, I was convinced.
Any lingering doubts I may have had about women serving in combat jobs were completely erased during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of service women were deployed. They fought, were wounded, and many died right alongside the men. During the war, women were also decorated with some of the highest awards for personal valor.
The wars provided 12 years worth of evidence that women can successfully meet combat arms standards and accomplish missions on the battlefield. Yet in spite of this, today service women still have to prove their worth day in and day out while fighting another battle in their own ranks, a battle against gender discrimination.
In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union joined in this fight by suing the Department of Defense for their discriminatory combat exclusion policy in the Hegar v. Hagel case. Four military women, along with the Service Women’s Action Network, joined the suit as plaintiffs. These remarkable women had completed arduous combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan performing the same tasks, taking the same risks, and making the same sacrifices as their male counterparts. But when they returned to the states, they found themselves unfairly barred from doing the same jobs they had successfully done during wartime.
Thanks in part to pressure from our lawsuit, last year then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially rescinded the remaining policies that had kept women relegated to the role of second-class soldier. He directed the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to fully integrate women by January 2016. But even with these marching orders, none of the services have completely rolled back their “brass ceiling” under the new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel.
Integration is happening to varying degrees, but it has become apparent that some of the services are moving at a pace that appears too slow to make their deadline. Because of this, Hegar v. Hagel continues to be litigated in federal court. We are scheduled to appear in court for another update hearing this week and the Pentagon will have to explain to the judge why it’s taking so long to remove gender-based barriers to service.
In recognition of our service women’s ongoing battle, it is not enough to simply thank a veteran for her service and go on your merry way. Instead, we must demand that our military fully and fairly integrate women into every occupation, including jobs in the infantry. Through dedication and sacrifice, women have earned their place alongside their male counterparts, and it is an outrage that the military refuses to recognize this.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military opened the doors for women to serve in combat arms jobs out of necessity — and women answered the call. Now that service women have successfully returned from the fight, we must not allow the military to keep slamming those doors in their faces.