BAGHDAD, April 7, 2011 — The policy on women serving in combat hasn’t kept up with reality, and the military needs to find ways to keep its young, combat-seasoned leaders, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told soldiers here today.
As is his custom during troop visits, Gates offered to answer questions, and those issues were on the minds of the soldiers at Camp Liberty.
“The truth is that women have been serving in combat already,” the secretary said in response to a soldier’s question. “I had some women complain to me in Afghanistan that because of the rules in terms of searching Afghan women and so on, a lot of combat patrols would take women soldiers along with them. And their complaint was that because they’re not in a combat [military occupational specialty], they haven’t had combat training, but they’re on a combat patrol. So there’s a certain contradiction there.”
Though that shows policy hadn’t caught up with reality in some respects, Gates added, he believes change will come.
“I’m confident that this is an area that is going to change,” he said. “Time scale of the change? I have no idea. We’re just starting out with putting women on submarines. That will be a learning process. I think they’re doing it smart and cleverly and carefully, and my guess is they’ll do the same thing with respect to women in combat.
“But I think the first place it has to start is with the reality that in a lot of places, we’re already there,” he added.
Another questioner asked Gates to discuss a speech he delivered Feb. 25 at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in which he urged taking another look at how the military evaluates and promotes its leaders.
The secretary noted that in the speech, he referred to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “essentially being the captains’ wars.”
“These are, fundamentally, small-unit wars,” he explained. “We’re not dealing with corps in the field or divisions in the field, but at the largest, a brigade –- and a lot of things at the battalion, the company and the platoon level.”
As a result, he said, younger officers and noncommissioned officers have had more responsibility and independence, and have had the freedom to innovate while dealing with a wide range of activities.
“What I talked about at West Point,” Gates said, “was my worry about what happens when men and women who have been given that kind of freedom and that kind of opportunity come back and end up in a closet at the Pentagon preparing PowerPoint slides, and how the Army is going to challenge people who have had that kind of experience to stay in the Army.”
Increased opportunities to pursue higher education or the chance to teach at a service school can give seasoned young leaders a variety of experiences, Gates told the soldiers, “so that you’re not plucked back down into a cubby hole somewhere in the Pentagon where you don’t know whether it’s night or day.”
Today’s military is battle-hardened, the secretary said, adding that senior military leaders call it the best military the nation has ever had.
“I’d hate to see us squander it after we’re out of active combat by not having innovative, open-minded personnel policies that take advantage of the experiences that you all have had in places like Iraq.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)