Secretary Discusses Women in Combat, Keeping Leaders

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)

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