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Worcester Telegram & Gazette - Time to Break the Brass Ceiling

Op-Ed

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By Senator Scott Brown

Recently, Rick Santorum, a Republican candidate for president, expressed his view that allowing women to serve in combat positions could compromise the mission of the military because of the "emotions" involved. I disagree, and I believe we need to move away from this type of narrow thinking because it is demeaning to women and utterly ignores the contributions they have been making in defense of our country.

Since the beginning of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 140 women serving as soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have lost their lives serving our country. Their sacrifice is no different than their male counterparts. As a 32-year member of the Army National Guard, I have served with women, and seen firsthand their professionalism in service of country. Despite the reality that women are performing similar roles as men in the military, including in combat situations, there remains a formal ban on women serving on the front lines.

It's time to break this brass ceiling. That's why I have encouraged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to lift the prohibition on qualified women in combat and allow them to compete for the same jobs and opportunities currently available to men.

I approach this issue the same way I did with respect to my vote in support of repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military. When a soldier answers the call to serve, and risks life or limb, it has never mattered to me whether they are gay or straight, male or female. My only concern has been whether their service and sacrifice is with pride, honor and competence.

Denying women the ability to volunteer on the front lines in combat units such as infantry, armor, and special operations blocks their career pathway in the military. For women who have chosen the military as a career, it means they are potentially denied promotions and advancement in rank.

Preventing women from serving on the front lines ignores the reality of modern warfare and what women are already doing in front line positions. There are plenty of examples of women serving bravely and competently when they have found themselves in combat situations.

In March 2003, American and allied combat forces crossed the border into Iraq to confront Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime. Behind them in their march on Baghdad rolled convoys of supply trucks, many of them driven by women in uniform serving in combat support roles. Suddenly, two young women soldiers found themselves surrounded by enemy fighters.

Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa was mortally wounded by enemy fire, becoming the first woman casualty of the war in Iraq. Specialist Shoshana Nyree Johnson survived the firefight although suffering bullet wounds to both ankles, and was captured and became a prisoner of war. Twenty days later, she and six of her comrades were found and rescued by U.S. Marines.

Finally, on March 20, 2005, exactly two years after American combat forces invaded Iraq, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star, and the first in history to receive it because of valorous actions in direct combat. These women have proved they are just as equal to the task as their male comrades in arms.

I'm encouraged by the fact that the Department of Defense is starting to remove some of the barriers preventing female service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant. This is a positive step, but it is still short of full equality. I believe there is more we can do. We have more than 350,000 women in uniform. Our military should utilize its finest talent at hand in the best positions possible, regardless of gender. Doing so would improve military effectiveness, not detract from it.

It's clear the circumstances of modern warfare have changed. Women serve on the front lines today, and they do so with incredible honor and courage. Their service should be formally recognized, and they should be able develop a career path in the military and advance to higher ranks in the same manner as their male counterparts.

U.S. Sen. Scott Brown is the junior senator from Massachusetts.


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