In a major policy shift, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday that female service member can hold combat roles.
The Washington Post explained the decision’s significance:
The decision comes after a decade of counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women demonstrated heroism on battlefields with no front lines. It dovetails with another seismic policy change in the military that has been implemented relatively smoothly: the repeal of the ban on openly gay service members.
Initial response to the change has generally been positive.
The Post article included an enthusiastic quote from Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which has advocated for the full inclusion of women: “This is monumental. Every time equality is recognized and meritocracy is enforced, it helps everyone, and it will help professionalize the force.”
“Equality of opportunity comes with equal obligation and equal standards,” declared USA Today’s Editorial Board in the deck to its opinion piece supporting the change.
Not everyone is in favor of the change.
The USA Today piece pointed out that critics will argue that standards will in fact be lowered, that the presence of women will create awkward situations and relationship problems, and that military readiness will suffer
For his part, retired Army general Jerry Boykin wrote in the newspaper’s pages that the change is the wrong policy because it ignores fundamental biological differences between the sexes, and the natural implications of those differences.
Whether one is in for or against lifting the ban, one aspect of it has received very little attention: the potential increase in the number of disabled female veterans.
We analyzed 2011 Census data to look at the number of living veterans.
The percentage who are female has increased dramatically since the war in Vietnam.
Whereas just 2 percent of the more than 2 million living Vietnam veterans were women, 17 percent, or more than one in six, veterans from the Second Gulf War are female.
In total, 16 percent of the 5.8 million veterans since the First Gulf War are women, Hoy’s analysis found.
But an even higher percentage of those women already have significant disabilities directly connected to their time of service.
We looked at the data for veterans with disability ratings of at least 30 percent who have served at any point since the Persian Gulf War began in 1991.
We chose that number because it is the threshold at which disabled veterans are eligible for additional money for dependents like spouses, minor children and parents, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
We found that more than 120,000, or 19 percent, of the 631,000 veterans with at least a 30 percent disability rating, were women.
In other words, there was a higher than expected number of significantly disabled female veterans before the ban was lifted.
That number is only likely to increase once women are permitted in all combat situations.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Nicole Alberico asserted that her department has sufficient resources to help all veterans.
“We have been and we will continue to [do so],” she said.
But Gary Arnold, spokesman at disability rights organization Access Living in Chicago, said the resources for returning veterans need to be strengthened throughout the country.
“That kind of underscores the importance of there being services ready to support people with disabilities as they come back with service, already in Illinois and across the country disability aren’t what they could be,” Arnold said. “I think we need to strengthen them across the board in Illinois and across the country. In terms of housing services, employment services, things like that, the kind of essential services people need to transition back into communities.
“I think the fact that we might have more veterans with disabilities returning from service makes it more important that we strengthen our community support for people with disabilities,” Arnold said.
We’ve reached out to disabled female veterans to hear their perspective, including recently elected U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
“When we lift restrictions & allow people to serve based on their performance, our nation benefits,” Duckworth tweeted on Friday.
We’ll let you know what they say and are open to your input in the meantime.