By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
In December 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that women would no longer be barred from combat jobs in the U.S. armed forces. The welcome change opened 220,000 new infantry, armor, reconnaissance and special operations jobs to women, improving their opportunities for military pay increases and career advancement.
The policy reversal acknowledged and ratified the reality of war that many women over the past 14 years have experienced when they deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan – they have been on the front lines. It also reflects changing American demographics and the complex nature of conflict in the world today. Many people believe that opening up the military to women is a social experiment driven by a liberal or feminist agenda. In fact, the military needs women. It could not fill its recruitment quotas without them and it needs the diversity they bring to the armed forces to cope with a changing world.
Women have been experiencing combat for a long time now. It just hasn't been given any credit. They just recently let women into the infantry and that to me comes as no surprise, because, for a long time now, we've already been participating on the front lines. We'd be on a mission. Females would be there, and then you'd get into a firefight and we're just there. And what are we supposed to do? We're not just gonna sit back and say, 'Oh, I'm a female. I can't participate in a firefight.' No, you're a soldier. So, you do what you have to do. You place yourself in the right position, and you do what's expected of you as a soldier in that situation.
– Amanda Tejada, one of the three main characters in Soldier On: Life After Deployment, my documentary about the readjustment of three women to civilian life following their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tejada, now 28, joined the Army as soon as she graduated from high school in Cranston, R.I. After training in the United States and a one-year stint in Korea, she was deployed to Afghanistan where she took part in deadly firefights against the Taliban in Nuristan Province.
Prior to volunteering, Tejada was a member of her high school's Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or JROTC. She drilled with a heavy rifle that she spun, tossed into the air and caught smartly. She was a fit and strong teenager – a condition is increasingly uncommon in the United States.
According to the military, twenty-five percent of Americans age 17 to 24 are too overweight to join the military today. When factors such as poor education, criminal backgrounds and other disqualifiers such as visible tattoos on the face and hands are taken into consideration, almost 75 percent of young Americans are ineligible to volunteer to serve in the armed forces.
"There are 30-some million 17- to 24-year-olds out there, but by the time you get all the way down to those that are qualified, you're down to less than a million young Americans," said Maj. Gen. Mark Brilakis, the commander of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, told Federal News Radio.
Without women, the pool of eligible candidates would shrink by half. The military would face even greater difficulties reaching its recruiting targets, which totaled approximately 186,000 in 2015 for all branches of the armed forces, including both active duty and reserve personnel.
Women also add diversity to the military, which is crucial to its success in an increasingly complex world. Research across many fields has repeatedly demonstrated that differences among members makes teams more hardworking, better prepared and innovative. Team members have to anticipate alternative viewpoints, prepare to incorporate or rebut them and think creatively to find solutions.
"All else being equal, a team with more than one represented demographic will make us perform better, especially when it comes to producing innovation, which becomes more important to the military with each passing day," wrote Carl Forsling, former Marine pilot and columnist for Task and Purpose.
The three women in Soldier On: Life After Deployment are proud of their military service, a common feeling among both female and male veterans (97 percent and 96 percent, respectively). Despite the sacrifices the women made and the readjustment issues, both large and small, they faced when they returned home, they value what they learned and the contributions they made.
Their military experiences are ignored, overlooked or misunderstood by the majority of Americans. After World War II, about 12 percent of Americans had been in the armed forces. Today, when less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, it is our duty as the remaining 99 percent to seek out veterans, hear their stories, honor their service and broaden our understanding of the world and its current and complex challenges.