Yesterday I had the opportunity to address a conference on “Women and War,” hosted by the United States Institute of Peace. My main message was this: no matter how many doors we have opened for women in the military — and there have been many — there are still too many others yet closed.
We simply must do a better job tapping into their unique talents and understanding their unique challenges.
Today, women are rising through our ranks and expanding their influence at an ever-increasing rate, serving magnificently all over the world in all sorts of ways. More critically, in these wars of ours, they’ve served and sacrificed and led every bit as much and every bit as capably as any man out there. Well over 200,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, demonstrating tremendous resilience, adaptability and capacity for innovation.
Indeed, they have given us a competitive advantage.
Five years ago, when the enemy was using Iraqi women to subvert our security checkpoints, female Marines started something called the “Lioness” program to counter this threat and then conduct broader outreach to the women of Iraq.
In Afghanistan today, female Marines are providing hope and promise through female engagement teams in the Taliban strongholds in that country. These brave women have in many places been able to operate where male troops often cannot go. One Afghan elder who opened his home so female Marines could visit with his wife told Tom Ricks, author of the “Best Defense” blog on ForeignPolicy.com, “Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.”
Now, I would tell you that ALL of our deployed troops, men and women alike, are there to fight for and to help the local population. But these women have been able to build special relationships and trust with Afghan women, to see things through their eyes and gain valuable insight that we would not have gained otherwise.
Time and again, military women show us that courage and leadership recognize no gender. In a war where there is no longer a clear delineation between frontlines and sidelines, where the war can come at you from any direction, I think it’s important for all of us to remember that this will be the first generation of veterans where large numbers of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat.
I know what the law says, and I know what it requires. But I’d be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today or who’s served in Iraq over the last few years did so without facing the same risks to live and limb that their male counterparts faced. Military women are coming home to Dover too.
And just like the men, those that make it home do so with wounds visible and invisible, with similar consequences for our health-care system, our national employment rate and even homelessness. Along with other issues, financial hardships are driving veteran homelessness to a rate faster than experienced by the Vietnam generation. Experts say that more than 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and almost 4,000 are from today’s generation and 10% of those seeking help for homelessness are women. Many of these women have young children who have already been through so much.
This is something that deeply troubles me, because the resources for these women haven’t caught up with those for male veterans. And they have unique challenges that the system just does not understand yet.
There are, indeed, many doors yet to open.
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