In January 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the military would be required to open up all combat roles to all men and women, where women were previously prevented from applying. There have been a number of other countries who have also done the same, allowing women to apply for all positions within the military, such as the UK and Australia.
Facebook COO and “Lean In” founder Sheryl Sandberg had also met with Ash Carter and members of the armed forces in 2015 to talk about not only the importance of female representation within the military, but specifically at a leadership level, if the military are ever going to see gender parity within their ranks.
Despite those who may have reservations about women having the competency to do the types of jobs required in combat, in 2016 the first female Army Rangers and Navy Seals were officially inducted after passing grueling training courses to prove it is possible.
But the number of women in each military branch is still very low. They make up only 14% of total military service members. Broken down, that is 13.6% in the Army, 16,4% in the Navy, 19.1% in the Air Force, 15.7% in the Coast Guard, and the lowest at 6.8% in the Marine Corps. In the reserves, women make up 19.5% in total.
Clearly women are lacking in the Marines the most, which is why it was welcome news to hear that they have welcomed their first female infantry members. They are part of the infantry battalion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and will serve in the will serve in the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.
The identities of the women have not yet been released to the public, but 1st Lt. John McCombs, a Marines spokesman, told CNN the trio have specializations as rifleman, machine gun and mortar. The secrecy is to avoid outside attention as they get acclimated to their new jobs, but the spokesman said there are 3 women in leadership positions over them who will help to make the transition easier.
The Marine Corp Times reported the female School of Infantry graduates are part of the military’s gender integration research, which could potentially be under question now that Donald Trump is president, and both he and his Defense Secretary appointee retired Gen. James Mattis have made disparaging remarks about women in the military.
As the topic of sexual assault in the military has become more exposed in recent years, especially with the release of the 2012 Academy Award-nominated documentary ‘The Invisible War’, it is disturbing, to say the least, to see such casual dismissal of a real and traumatic issue as well as a crass solution that involves barring women from being part of the military.
“26,000 unreported sexual assults [sic] in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” tweeted Trump in 2013. In a televised Town Hall in in September 2016, he reaffirmed that he stands by his outrageous comment, showing what little regard he has for the progress of women and the elimination of gender-based violence.
General Mattis has previously said he doesn’t like the idea of male and female military members mixing together, claiming it will make them less effective.
“When you have to reduce standards — as you would have to do, you would have to do it — and when you would mix, you know, when you mix eros, when you mix affection for one another that could be manifested sexually, I don’t care if you go anywhere in history, you will not find where this has worked. Never has this worked,” he said in 2015, clearly showing how outdated his thinking is.
The General was confirmed almost unanimously by the Senate, 98-1, with the lone dissenter being Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, as CNN reports she has been a fierce advocate for policies that end sexual assault in the military and seek to punish perpetrators in a manner that is more fitting, rather than the abysmal standards seen in the past which led to documentaries such as ‘The Invisible War’.
Along with having a key US legislator on their side, the new female Marine Infantry service members will also have key Marines leadership in their corner to go to bat for them if the occasion calls for it. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller made it clear that no one should ever try to make him think women are far less capable of doing their job effectively, as he has witnessed first hand their professionalism and service.
“With all due respect, I would never insult a female member of the armed service and talk about women in combat. They’ve been in combat throughout history,” he told the press, alluding to the fact that women have actually been an integral part of American military history dating back to the Civil War, where they would disguise themselves as men in order to be allowed to fight.
General Neller mentioned Major Megan McClung who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006, reiterating that the sacrifice made by women should not be forgotten or underestimated.
“I’m coming up on the 10th anniversary when Megan McClung was killed in Ramadi … And I sent her to Ramadi. So, I don’t mean to take umbrage, but when people start talking about women in combat, I don’t need a class on women in combat,” he said.
Although we don’t know the names and identities of the women who have broken a major gender barrier in the Marines, those around them know who they are, and more importantly, the women who will come in their wake will be able to look at their example and believe it is possible.