Sanchez: Women Should Be Recognized for Their Roles in Combat

Posted May 20, 2011 at 12:06pm

A soldier is a soldier. Heroism, sacrifice, valor and service are all words that describe those who defend our country — not just a man or woman, but a soldier.

America is the land of freedom and equality, where all people are given the right to work hard and succeed in their endeavors. Unfortunately, this remains an unfulfilled promise for the women in the United States military.

Our military is one of the largest and most respected institutions in the world, and yet it promotes and accepts a policy of overt discrimination against women who serve, categorically denying them access to career-enhancing jobs and opportunities.

Women make up about 15 percent of the armed forces, and there are more than 25,000 females in uniform serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. This country has lost 137 servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan — and more than 60 of those were killed in combat. Additionally, more than 1,300 female members of the armed forces have been wounded in action, many of whom were wearing the Combat Service Identification Badge.

Despite those numbers, female members are still prohibited by regulation from formally serving directly in combat. The operational environment for these two wars require women to engage in combat daily. Yet, the U.S. military still will not modify the combat role exclusion policy, which puts women at a competitive disadvantage for promotion, assignment and career progression.

In March, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission released a report recommending that ground combat units be open to female troops, formally appreciating the service that women have given in combat operations. The commission also emphasized that the current restriction puts women at a disadvantage as it relates to promotions and rank.

What I believe is the biggest disservice to our servicewomen is that they are not being recognized for the type of service they are providing — and not because they are not serving in combat with male soldiers but instead because (unlike their male counterparts) they are not technically permitted to serve their country in that way. The current combat exclusion policy is denying women the recognition they deserve, and in many ways their right to be a soldier, solely because of their gender.

This is seriously wrong. We have a regulation that says women may not serve in combat, while women are fighting and suffering the wounds of combat every day. The law is out of step with reality and must be changed. As one veteran soldier once told me: “When the map doesn’t agree with the ground you’re standing on, the map is wrong.”

In the debate a year ago before the enactment of the current version of the National Defense Authorization Act, I introduced an amendment that would have untied the hands of the commanders and permitted them to assign soldiers, sailors, Marines and service members in the Air Force based on the needs of the unit — and regardless of the service member’s gender.

Unfortunately, last year that amendment was supplanted by language mandating nothing more than a study that would explore that idea. However, progress has been made on other fronts. Last year, the Navy made a decision to lift the ban on women serving on submarines. I believe this trend will continue as we see that women are not only capable but are currently out there serving side by side with the male soldiers.

This month I introduced the Women’s Fair and Equal Right to Military Service Act. This legislation would require the military to overturn its ban on women serving in combat roles. I urge my colleagues to support my effort to level the playing field for women in the military.

Every day, female members of the armed forces engage in offensive ground combat and perform duties many people believe women are not capable of. As the highest-ranking woman on the House Armed Services Committee, I believe these servicewomen truly deserve this country’s utmost respect for their courage, unyielding strength and commitment to their country. Let’s open new doors for the next generation of women and give our female service members both the privilege and official recognition of serving their country in direct combat.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) ranks No. 3 among the minority party’s members on the Armed Services Committee and is the ranking member on its Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.