Air Force Hearing Shows Why Women’s Combat Ban Needed to Go

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Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/Corbis

A hearing of Air Force leaders yesterday conveniently demonstrated why exiting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s lift of the military’s ban on women in combat positions came not a moment too soon. The hearing was to figure out how Lackland Air Force Base came to play host to the 32 training instructors and drill sergeants who allegedly took advantage of their positions over 59 recruits, most of them female and some of them teenagers. Their trials, for charges ranging from rape to inappropriate relationships, are still ongoing. The hearing’s conclusion? 

“Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that there was poor oversight of instructors at the Air Force’s version of boot camp at Lackland, and acknowledged that 'weaknesses developed in each one of our institutional safeguards' that led to a poisonous culture in which the instructors believed they could easily get away with repeatedly preying on young woman recruits.”

General Welsh and General Edward A. Rice acknowledged that it didn't help that Air Force commanders can decide whether or not to include sexual harassment on personnel service records. Combined with victims' option to report an attack and transfer units without kicking off an official investigation, the policy keeps repeat offenders within the military's ranks. But General Walsh said “the biggest problem faced by the military in dealing with sexual assaults and abuse has been the reluctance of women to report attacks and instances of harassment, for fear of reprisals.” Panetta admitted as much last year. Introducing new but limited initiatives for victims of sexual assault in the military, he said the 3,191 reported sexual assault in 2011 were "actually closer to 19,000."

This epidemic — not at all limited to the Air Force — is among the reasons many are lauding Panetta’s decision to allow women in combat positions. It will make 230,000 more positions open to women, the kinds of jobs that pay well, earn medals, and lead to promotions. Women’s exclusion from those jobs is responsible, in part, for the military’s so-called "brass ceiling," a male/female hierarchy that Lackland shows is frighteningly easy to exploit. It’s hard to imagine that women would face the same fear of retribution from a female commanding officer for reporting her sexual assault. After all, there’s a one in three chance she’s been assaulted, too.

As Gail Collins pointed out in her New York Times column, the combat/non-combat distinction has become mostly bureaucratic, as “the shortage of trenches in modern warfare” means “an officer on the front lines is not necessarily in a more dangerous position than a support worker.” As a result, the Equal Rights Amendment–sinking debate about the fitness of the fairer sex for the battle is mostly academic now, too. The fact is, women are already fighting side-by-side with men, and any unnecessary barrier to their rise within the military — where they can represent and defend the interests of other women — only makes them more vulnerable to the very real threat posed by their fellow servicemen.