You know who never doubted that women could serve in combat jobs? Women who’ve actually served in combat jobs.
“I didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight,” said Tammy Duckworth, one of the first Army women to fly combat missions during the Iraq War, after the Pentagon announced Thursday that it would open all combat roles in every branch of the U.S. armed forces to women starting on January 1. “Of course women can serve in combat.”
Duckworth is one of four women currently in Congress who have served in the military. The Democratic representative from Illinois lost both her legs and sustained damage to her right arm in 2004 when her helicopter was shot down by insurgents. She retired from the Army National Guard last year after 23 years.
The Pentagon’s policy shift came after a two-year-long review of jobs in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command that were only open to men. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday he believes the U.S. can’t build a “force of the future” by excluding half of the country’s population. About 10 percent of military positions, or 220,000 jobs, remain closed to women until the new policy takes effect.
Duckworth serves on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, along with Martha McSally, a Republican from Arizona, and Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii. McSally is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and has logged over 300 combat flying hours. She was the first woman in U.S. history to fly a combat aircraft into enemy territory, in Iraq in 1995.
“It’s about damn time,” McSally said in a statement Thursday about the Pentagon’s decision. “We are a country that looks at people as individuals, not groups. We select the best man for the job, even if it’s a woman.”
Gabbard completed two tours in Iraq as a medical operations specialist between 2004 and 2009, and currently serves as a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard. She said the Defense Department “is finally catching up to the reality of the ways women have been contributing and serving our country.”
“This change is long overdue,” Gabbard said in a statement.
Joni Ernst, the Senate’s only female veteran, praised the policy change on Thursday, but included a caveat often cited by critics of integrating women into combat roles.
“I support providing women the opportunity to serve in any capacity, as long as standards are not lowered and it enhances our combat effectiveness,” she said in a statement.
Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, retired from the Iowa Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel just a few days ago after serving for 23 years.
The Obama administration announced in summer 2013 that all front-line combat positions would become available to women in 2016. The decision drew harsh criticism from some servicemembers, political figures, and others. Critics said that granting women eligibility for such roles would weaken the military’s standards and effectiveness. They included another member of the House Armed Services Committee: Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and a former Marine, who in September demanded the resignation of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus after Mabus said he’d allow women to apply to any Navy combat position. “Mabus is not only insulting the Marine Corps as an institution, but he’s essentially telling Marines that their experience and judgment doesn't matter,” Hunter said.
Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver faced similar criticism in August when they became the first women in history to graduate from U.S. Army Ranger School, the most physically and mentally demanding program in the Army. Army officials have said repeatedly that Griest and Haver—and Major Lisa Jaster, who completed the course in October— were subject to the same requirements as their male peers. “No woman that I know wanted to go to Ranger School if they change the standards, because then it degrades what the tab means,” Griest told reporters the day of her graduation ceremony.
Women were first officially accepted into the U.S. military in 1901, as nurses. By the late 1940s, they served in every branch of the military. By the 1970s, they were flying helicopters. In 1991, Congress repealed laws banning women from flying in combat. In an interview with Defense One’s Molly O’Toole this summer, McSally recalled sitting in a training room shortly after that, listening to a male fighter pilot ranting about how women “don’t have what it takes.”
“And here’s this slightly pudgy fighter pilot, standing up and emotionally arguing why women don’t have the strength,” McSally said, just “because we had ovaries, for crying out loud.”