In 2005, on a dusty road in Afghanistan, 24-year old Lieutenant Walker was killed by a roadside bomb buried by insurgents.
Walker had led a platoon of engineers building new roads to help stabilize a critical region—an operation that left the soldiers dangerously exposed for hours as they worked. The young lieutenant’s death meant the passing of a revered leader known for always going the extra mile for fellow soldiers. On the front lines, Walker was working to help change the tide of war. The tragically familiar story of lethal roadside bomb attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan is told repeatedly. Lieutenant Walker’s story joined this long list with one key exception: Walker was a woman. I met Laura Walker while we were cadets at West Point. She personified everything the academy wanted in an officer: smart, charismatic, physically fit.
Today, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected to announce the Pentagon’s plan to end the ban on women in combat, opening as many as 230,000 additional combat roles to all service members regardless of gender. The bold announcement represents a long-overdue shift in policy that finally reflects the realities of our nation’s military and the complexities of modern warfare. It’s also a fitting show of respect for the more than 150 women like Laura who died serving our country in direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 1994 ban on women in combat harked back to an era when wars had front lines where the men did the “dirty work” while women cared for the wounded in aid stations or typed correspondence miles away from battle. The ban also solidified the backward notion that women were less capable than their male counterparts at accomplishing dangerous missions on the battlefield. Even worse, it suggested women might have even become a burden. The thinking went that male troops, gripped by the chivalristic need to help a fallen female comrade, would falter in battle and jeopardize the mission. This, however, is not true. During deployments to Iraq, the soldiers in my all-male units patrolled the same streets, drove in the same convoys, and were exposed to the same risk of mortar and rocket fire as our female comrades. Today, every aspect of the modern battlefield has its inherent dangers, but that is not a valid reason to continue policies of exclusion. Women are serving admirably in vital roles throughout the U.S. military all around the world. Lifting the ban means the contributions of women can now finally be equally recognized. The policy shift also chips away at a glass ceiling that makes it harder for women to break into the highest ranks of the military without the all-important combat-service assignments currently reserved for men. But lifting the ban in a military steeped in tradition won’t come without its challenges. Resistance will undoubtedly come from exclusively male units that pride themselves on masculine grit and toughness. Nevertheless, if the military uses objective physical standards as the barrier to entering these units, with time, such arguments will fade. Would those standards potentially continue to limit the number of women who serve in traditionally male roles? Probably. But the women who surpass these standards—of whom I'm confident there will be many—will be extremely valuable members of units made stronger by their inclusion. Secretary Panetta’s announcement also represents a starkly different approach than the one used to repeal the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. Although the military has slowly been opening more roles to women, the sudden announcement of the policy change reflects the new political realities of the day. The president can ill afford a contentious public debate and lengthy rollout while gearing up for fights over gun control, immigration reform, and the national debt.
But the president, who can change the regulation without a change in law, is sure to draw critics—particularly among veterans groups and congressional conservatives. Veterans may see this as an attack on military tradition, while conservatives will argue that this is yet another attempt at radical social experimentation. In the coming months, we’ll see the same tired arguments as the change is fully implemented. Dire warnings of disruptions to cohesion, morale, and discipline wielded against African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and the gay community will be back to deny women the right to serve equally. In every case, these arguments are unlikely to be based on open-minded experience serving in today’s military and should be met with a spirited rebuttal by the administration and the next secretary of defense. If we're truly a nation that believes in freedom of opportunity, there cannot exist pockets of exclusion, no matter the profession. Lieutenant Walker served in a military where front lines didn’t exist and her platoon thrived under her leadership. Soon our military’s policies will reflect the service she embodied.