Honoring the Contributions of Women to the Defense of Our Nation

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By Secretary Ashton Carter, Secretary of Defense

Last week, I visited the United States Military Academy at West Point and spoke to the 4,400 cadets there who will help lead our force of the future. I thanked them for answering the noble call of service and for embracing the awesome responsibility of leadership.

While on campus, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a dozen cadets who have chosen infantry service, including the first women at the academy to do so following my December announcement that all military positions will be open to anyone, male or female, who can meet our high standards.

It is not only these remarkable women who are making history; it is every cadet who is doing so. First in training, and then in battle, they will lead this implementation, and they will demonstrate that the women who recently graduated from Ranger School, who have accompanied our special operations forces, who led convoys in combat and have flown attack helicopters for the past 15 years are not just a news story; they are a vital part of our ability to defend our nation. To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country’s talents and skills – we have to take full advantage of every individual who can meet our high standards.

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U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Scott Miller congratulates Capt. Kristen Griest and U.S. Army Ranger School Class 08-15 during their graduation at Fort Benning, Georgia, Aug. 21, 2015. Griest and class member 1st Lt. Shaye Haver became the first female graduates of the school. Army photo.

It is not only these remarkable women who are making history; it is every cadet who is doing so. First in training, and then in battle, they will lead this implementation, and they will demonstrate that the women who recently graduated from Ranger School, who have accompanied our special operations forces, who led convoys in combat and have flown attack helicopters for the past 15 years are not just a news story; they are a vital part of our ability to defend our nation. To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country’s talents and skills – we have to take full advantage of every individual who can meet our high standards.

Implementation of the decision to open all military positions to women must be handled the right way, because the combat effectiveness of our force is paramount. To make sure we did this right, I asked the military services to incorporate seven guiding principles into their implementation plans: transparent standards, population size, talent management, physical demands and physiological differences, operating abroad, conduct and culture, and assessment and adjustment . To read more about these guiding principles and the implementation plans from the services, please see my recent post on Medium.com.

Service members and civilian guests attend the 17th annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, May 20, 2014. Photo by Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Alejandro Sierras.
Service members and civilian guests attend the 17th annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, May 20, 2014. Photo by Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Alejandro Sierras.

The female cadets I spoke with are part of a proud history of American women in service that extends back to the earliest days of the revolution. Not far from where we had lunch, there stands a memorial marking the grave of Margaret Corbin, the first woman laid to rest at West Point with full military honors. On Nov. 16, 1776, when Corbin’s husband was killed during the Battle of Fort Washington, she took charge of his cannon, covering the Continental Army’s retreat. She continued to fire his cannon with deadly accuracy, making her a high-priority target, and it was her crippling injury that brought an end to the battle. She received a soldier’s pay from the Continental Congress, and later, a disability pension.

Many Americans are familiar with Harriet Tubman’s heroism as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, but may not know about her military contributions during the Civil War. She planned, organized and led an operation deep into enemy-held territory in South Carolina. Her raid at the Comabahee Ferry liberated more than 720 slaves, including 100 men who later enlisted in the Union Army and participated in key battles.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Luta C. McGrath, the oldest known female World War II veteran, receives a standing ovation after President Barack Obama mentioned her during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, Nov. 11, 2015. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Luta C. McGrath, the oldest known female World War II veteran, receives a standing ovation after President Barack Obama mentioned her during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, Nov. 11, 2015. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

There are also Army Sgt. Carmen Contreras, Hazel Ying Lee, and Navy Lt. Susan Ahn, among many others, who served in the women’s auxiliary services during World War II. And the extraordinary leaders in our military today, including Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, nominated by President Barack Obama last week to command NORAD and NORTHCOM as our first female combatant commander, and Army Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, West Point’s first female commandant.

In another first, March 22 marked the first time that the missile alert crews at all three U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile bases consisted entirely of women, and they were joined by all-female aircrews aboard the B-52s from Minot and Barksdale Air Force Bases. Female aircrews from Offut Air Force Base’s Airborne Launch Control System also participated. And with Secretary Deborah James and recently confirmed Undersecretary Lisa Disbrow, the Air Force is now the first U.S. service to be led by women in the top two civilian posts.

We’ve also made important strides to empower women around the globe. Through the implementation of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, DoD is supporting programs aimed at advancing women’s inclusion in peace building and conflict prevention processes, and addressing the impact of violence and conflict on women and girls.

U.S. Marines assigned to the female engagement team (FET) attached to Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment conduct a security patrol in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 3, 2011. The FET aids the infantry Marines by engaging Afghan women and children in support of the International Security Assistance Force. (DoD photo by Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum, U.S. Marine Corps /Released)
U.S. Marines assigned to the female engagement team (FET) attached to Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment conduct a security patrol in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 3, 2011. The FET aids the infantry Marines by engaging Afghan women and children in support of the International Security Assistance Force. (DoD photo by Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum, U.S. Marine Corps /Released)

Through courses and seminars hosted by DoD’s regional centers and geographic combatant commands, we encourage our friends and allies to expand the recruitment and retention of women in their security sectors and the incorporation of gender perspectives into their peace and security policy. Also, in training partner militaries in peacekeeping operations, our forces help equip them to better prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence. In short, the women and men of the Defense Department are enabling the next generation of remarkable women to continue making history around the world.

So, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us take pride in those who have served in our past, let us thank all of those who serve today, and let us welcome the next generation as it steps forward to serve in every capacity tomorrow.