Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that he would end the combat exclusion policy, thus lifting the ban on women in combat.

I, for one, applaud the news.

I’m sure the nay-sayers are out there handing out the usual excuses:  women aren’t qualified, aren’t strong enough, couldn’t handle it, will ruin unit cohesion.  Blah, blah, blah.  They said the same thing about women being in the military at all.  They said it about blacks serving in our armed forces.  Yet here we are, 65 years after President Truman integrated the military and permitted women in the regular and reserve forces:  we have the strongest, most powerful military on Earth.

Yet women’s careers in the military have been stunted by the combat exclusion policy.  Many career fields require experience in a combat unit before a soldier is eligible for promotion.  But the Pentagon’s policy prohibited women from being assigned to combat units – even in non-combat roles.  Thus, women have been denied opportunities to advance their careers.

Lifting the combat exclusion policy is a watershed moment in defense policy, to be sure.  But it’s nothing new on the ground.

Women have served in our military in dangerous positions since its very inception.  Molly Pitcher was likely the first woman in combat when, after her husband was shot, she took his place at the cannon in our Revolutionary War.  Some women disguised themselves as men and served in the militia and during wartime for years before being detected.  Tens of thousands served near the front lines in World War I.  Eighty-three were taken as prisoners of war in World War II – some held by the Japanese as long as 30 months.

And although more and more jobs have been opened to women over the last 20 years, we were still prohibited from serving in combat.

But the reality of modern warfare has changed that.  For the last ten years, American women soldiers have been thrust into combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Originally dispatched with patrols to diffuse the cultural tensions, women fought alongside male US Marines in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles in Iraq.  So don’t tell me they can’t do it.  They can and they have.

But because of their gender, they did not receive proper combat training.  Their equipment was old, mis-sized, faulty, or obsolete.  And when they returned home, they were not eligible for the same benefits as the men who fought on the same streets alongside them.  All because they were not officially allowed to be in combat.

The truth is, today’s military needs women.  By comprising 14% of our armed forces, women are intrinsically tied to the success of the mission.  The simple fact of modern warfare is that women are serving in combat situations.  And women are behaving admirably.  Just check out a few:

  • Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, an MP, received the Silver Star for valor in close quarters combat, after leading nine soldiers to defeat an ambush of fifty insurgents.
  • Sergeant Monica Lin Brown, an Army medic, received the Silver Star after she saved the lives of fellow soldiers by running through insurgent gunfire, using her body to shield wounded soldiers while mortar rounds fell nearby.
  • Major Tammy Duckworth received a Purple Heart after her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by an Iraqi insurgent.  The explosion cost her both legs.

These women and hundreds of thousands more have put their lives on the line.  Over 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan – and 152 have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Two years ago, I saw the film Lioness, which documented the stories of our first women combat soldiers in Iraq.  On March 1, 2011, I introduced a resolution into the Ohio House of Representatives to urge the end of the combat exclusion policy.  The other two women veterans in the Ohio House, Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) and Rep. Sandra Williams (D-Cleveland), joined me.

The resolution was co-sponsored by every member of the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, members of the Republican House women’s caucus, veterans, non-veterans, men, and women.  We all knew what all women in the military know:  women have been serving in combat for years.  But due to this obsolete, short-sighted policy, they were denied the training, equipment, and benefits they deserved simply because the Department of Defense had blinders on.

Now that women may apply for combat positions, do I think the flood gates will open and women will flock to infantry training?  No.  But some will.  Do I think all women will qualify?  No.  But some will.  And for those who do seek and qualify for this duty, let them serve.

The question we ask shouldn’t be, “Can women serve in combat?”  They have been and will continue to do so.  Instead, the question should be, “What do we do now that women are serving in combat?”

The first step would be to provide them with the proper training, equipment, and benefits that all combat soldiers deserve.

So I applaud the decision of Defense Secretary Panetta.  It is about time.


State Rep. Connie Pillich is serving her third term in the Ohio House of Representatives.  She served eight years on active duty in the United States Air Force, achieving the rank of Captain.