The recent Department of Defense decision to open all combat jobs to women is the first step toward the recognition that after 14 years of war, shouldered by less than one-half of 1 percent of the population, this country needs to enact a policy of compulsory foreign or domestic service equitably shared by all.
In 1976, over 300 women entered the four military service academies for the first time. Four years later, 66 percent of them graduated compared to 70 percent of their male counterparts.
Despite their satisfactory completion of the same courses of study as the men, and despite the fact that the objective of the service academies is to train combat leaders, they were barred from combat or serving aboard aircraft or ships engaged in combat. These prohibitions had the effect of limiting advancement and career opportunities.
The reality is women have been fighting and dying beside their male counterparts for much of our history.
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Schoolchildren learn about Molly Pitcher, who fought in the American Revolution, and the hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War, on both sides. The War of 1812 saw the first woman Marine, Lucy Brewer, who served aboard Old Ironsides as George Baker.
The number and visibility of women service members increased during the two world wars as nurses and ambulance drivers and Women’s Air Service pilots who ferried warplanes from factories to military airfields.
The Japanese captured more than 80 American nurses and held them as prisoners of war after Corregidor fell in 1943. More than 400 American women service members were killed in World War II.
Twelve women were among the thousands of troops who stormed the beach at Inchon, Korea, in September 1950, beginning the battle that lead to the recapture of Seoul.
The names of eight women are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington alongside more than 58,000 of their male comrades. Lt. Col. Annie Ruth Graham, chief nurse at the 91st Evac Hospital in Tuy Hoa, died at age 52 while serving in her third war. She was veteran of World War II and Korea before her service in Vietnam.
While on a search-and-rescue mission during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Black Hawk helicopter Maj. Rhonda Cornum was riding in was shot down. She suffered two broken arms and a gunshot wound in the back and was taken prisoner by Iraqi forces. Cornum retired in 2012 as a brigadier general.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dramatically increased the visibility of women in the military. Their importance to the total force and their inclusion in non-traditional jobs has grown tremendously over the past two decades, and they have proven themselves as worthy as any of their male comrades.
Less than a week after the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, Spc. Lori Anne Piestewa was killed in the same ambush that saw Jessica Lynch seriously injured and taken prisoner. Her recovery by Special Operations Forces was the first successful rescue of an American POW since Vietnam, and the first of a woman.
Closer to home, on Dec. 23, 2005, 24-year-old Army Reserve Sgt. Regina Reali of Fresno was killed in Iraq when an improvised explosive device detonated near her Humvee.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., lost both legs in November 2004 when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
More recently, Army Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver survived the Army’s punishing Ranger training course at Fort Benning to earn the coveted Ranger tab for their uniforms. They were joined by 94 male soldiers who made it through the course that pushes physical and mental endurance to the limits. They were part of a cadre of 380 men and 18 women who began the course 62 days before.
Thirty-five years after the first women graduated from the academies, the newly appointed commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, a 1990 West Point graduate. Her previous assignment was as deputy commanding general for support of the 10th Mountain Division. Holland also served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, it is not that big of a leap to appreciate the importance of women having the opportunity to train and serve in any capacity, including combat, in our military. When you look at the record, they have been doing it since the birth of our nation.
Only a couple of barriers remain: gender-neutral selective service registration and a national policy of compulsory foreign or domestic service equitably shared by all.
As The Bee editorial said on Dec.10, “A woman’s place is in combat.”
Jim Doyle of Fresno is a freelance writer and a veterans advocate.