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"A Change Long Overdue": Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on the First Year of Women in Combat

One year ago Friday, the Pentagon rescinded the policy that prevented women from serving in combat roles. In the past twelve months, the military has begun the process of integration by focusing on occupations that were already open to women, gradually allowing female service members who were performing a job to apply for the equivalent position in a ground combat unit. Many of these positions opened in a rush on Thursday when the Army announced it would lift the ban from 33,000 positions just a day before the anniversary.

“The first step was to move women into military jobs they were already qualified for, like radio operator, or chaplain—jobs that exist across the military, but that women were not allowed to serve in if it was in a ground combat unit,” said Nancy Duff Campbell of the National Women’s Law Center. In this effort, the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command have lagged notably behind. “When [then-Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta rescinded the policy a year ago, there were about 53,000 occupations women could already served in that were closed,” Duff Campbell said. With the Army announcement, "most of the rest are in the Marine Corps.”

Even with Thursday’s avalanche of progress, the most difficult aspect of integration lies ahead. The military has committed to allowing women into the infantry jobs that are currently closed to them, but DOD has said it must first craft gender-neutral performance standards. The deadline for integration is January 1, 2016.

On the eve of the anniversary, The New Republic reached veteran and U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard as she awaited a flight between islands in her home state of Hawaii. She shared her thoughts on integration’s first year.

Nora Caplan-Bricker: Critics of this policy have said it is outdated given the way war has changed in the 21st century. How is that the case?

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard: I think that the policy change was long overdue, and reflected kind of a catching up to the reality of some of the jobs that women have been doing in combat situations now for some time.

Within the last 12 years that our country has been at war, it’s been a very unconventional type of combat. It’s different from former concepts of “the front lines” and “the rear,” and who is doing what, and where the attacks are coming from. Again, this is a matter of the policy, and people’s perceptions being so far behind reality. There are so many different examples that one can speak of, of incredible women service members who have acted courageously and heroically, under duress and under fire.

You can look back in history through different conflicts in our nation’s past when women have been serving on the so-called front lines, as far back as the Civil War, when the women were disguising themselves as men. The ability of women to serve in these combat roles is there, and has been there for quite some time. It’s really the perception that’s been different from reality.

NCB: What are the challenges to implementing this change in the military?

TG: If you look at units that have had both men and women serving, especially in combat situations, they will tell you that we have a professional force. I think some of the challenges that are talked about may be inflated by those who have not experienced how this cohesive team can work together.

NCB: Was this policy an obstacle in your military career?

TG: Yes, absolutely, from the very start when I first enlisted in the army. One of my drill sergeants after I graduated from basic training said, "You would make an outstanding infantry soldier." It was not an option for me at that time, nor is it an option today. There were missions that I volunteered for while deployed that I was turned down for because they didn’t want any women. At times it was because of cultural concerns, especially in the Middle East, but in my personal experience, there were reasons that had nothing to do with respect for a culture and everything to do with the fact they did not want women to serve on these missions.

NCB: How do you think implementation is going so far?

TG: Overall, I would say there is progress being made, though to varying degrees in each branch. I was pleased to see [Thursday's] announcement that there are an additional 33,000 combat jobs available to women. The list includes “military police,” which was my job.

NCB: You still serve as part of the Army National Guard. How does that influence your work in Congress?

TG: I’ll make it 11 years in April of this year. It gives me a real firsthand perspective. As a member of Congress, I’m in a position to make decisions that have to do with our military. Having served in a medical unit in Iraq, I understand what the heavy cost of war actually is. I think that’s important: to make sure some of the information we’re getting at the highest levels is linked to the real world and what’s on the ground.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.