IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

For women in combat, the big threat isn’t behind enemy lines

"Sexual assault and harassment is happening at virtually every base and every service branch," retired Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati said on Melissa Harris-Perry Saturday.
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

"Sexual assault and harassment is happening at virtually every base and every service branch," retired Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati said on Melissa Harris-Perry Saturday.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently announced the end of a 1994 policy that banned women from direct ground combat. Host Melissa Harris-Perry opened her show on Saturday with a discussion about the Pentagon’s decision, and examined the impact the change will have on the United States military.

“The initiative to lift this ban, decades old, came from the chiefs,” said retired Col. Jack Jacobs, an MSNBC military analyst, when Harris-Perry asked about the origin of the decision. Jacobs was adamant in explaining that the policy change was not led by the president in an attempt to build a lasting legacy, but by “the chiefs of staff of all the services who themselves have spent plenty of time in combat.”

The joint chiefs were not the only ones in support of this decision. A Gallup poll gauging American’s support for allowing women in combat showed overwhelming approval in every category.

Servicewomen’s Action Network‘s executive director, retired Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati, was pleased with the lifted ban, but she noted that it was long overdue for the rules to reflect the reality that women were already involved in dangerous combat situations. She said, “all the proof was left on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan that women are capable.” Bhagwati’s words were echoed in a blog by Brigadier General Evelyn “Pat” Foote, a retired U.S. Army general, who wrote:

I and many other women have been fighting the women in combat issue for decades. It has taken the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deployment there of over 250,000 women to awaken the armed forces and the public to the reality of where and how women now serve. Getting rid of dysfunctional policies that have impeded the full service of women in the military is a great step forward.We have much more work to do in leveling the playing field, but we are on our way. The true readiness of our forces depends on moving forward to insure the proper utilization of every man and every woman who proudly serves.

editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel added that this is not the only area where women need to be celebrated and held to high standards of capability. “Women’s voices need to be heard at the highest levels of every institution of our society,” she said. Still, vanden Heuvel did not detract from the military victory. “This is a triumph for common sense and equality,” she added.

Critics of the new policy note that although it is a step forward in many regards, the issue is met with sensible concern. Harris-Perry spoke on increased chances of sexual assault for military women and referred to their new opportunity as “a horrifying irony.” The new battlefield equality notice paired with the sexual assault hearings at sexual assault hearings at Lackland Air Force Base brought much attention to the rampant reports of sexual assault across bases around the country.

“Sexual assault and harassment is happening at virtually every base and every service branch,” Bhagwati said as she spoke on her firsthand experiences with the issue. She mentioned that the Texas scandal was widely publicized due to excellent reporters, however several other instances of sexual injustice in the military go unexamined every day.

Col. Jacobs believes that solid leadership is the deterrent to social deviance on the bases. “At the end of the day, these things don’t happen in units that are well led,” he said. Harris-Perry asked him how it would be able to recreate these units with people in authority who will fight for those being abused. Jacobs responded, “start at the top.”

Feministing editor Chloe Angyal–who wrote about military sexual assault for us last week–also commented on the progress made by lifting the ban, but noted that an entire culture change will take tremendous work and a lengthy amount of time. She declared, “it’s not just about policy–equality takes more than that.”

See more of our conversation below.