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Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. Headshot

Lifting the Ban and Military Sexual Trauma

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Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.

Last Thursday, January 24, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta vowed to move "expeditiously" to integrate women into our military's combat units. Secretary Panetta's decision had the full support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of President Obama who, following the announcement, praised the service of women and called the change in policy a "historic step."

It is not surprising that the decision to lift the ban preventing women from serving in combat led immediately to widespread debate regarding the implications of the change for the military and for our society. Many veterans and service members -- male and female -- who believe the decision was long overdue reacted with jubilation. Those with this perspective point out that women have long been serving on the front lines in defense of our country and have been sacrificing their lives. According to these supporters, it's about time women in the military are recognized for their strengths, skills, and abilities and given the same opportunities that men enjoy regarding leadership and access to status and position.

Others disagree with the announced change in policy, expressing concern about the impact on the military. They fear that allowing women to serve in certain positions will change procedures and force standards to be lowered. The concern is that lowering standards will weaken our overall force. Others worry that once women are allowed to serve in combat, they may be required to do so -- removing the option for more "traditional" female choices. And still others express the belief that the full integration of women into the military will damage the essence of American culture. Proponents of this position suggest that Americans hold dear the image of women as the "softer" sex. Women keep the home fires burning and they keep their sons, brothers, and husbands from giving in to baser instincts. What will happen to our culture, they argue, if women are not only "giving" life but are also in positions that require them to take life?

Some ask, as well, how the new policy will affect what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has called the "alarming" rate of sexual assault and harassment cases within the military. According to the Chairman, Army General Martin Dempsey, who believes that the change in policy will have a positive effect in reducing the number of women subjected to military sexual trauma, "when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another that's designated something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment [of sexual abuse]."

The film The Invisible War has helped raise awareness about the ugliness of military sexual trauma. It has clearly captured the attention of military leadership, civilian audiences who have seen it, and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who nominated it for an Oscar. Given all of the attention that this film and this issue has received over the last year, perhaps it played a role in spurring the decision to provide equal power -- and, one hopes -- greater protection to the women who serve.

Unfortunately, we can't really know how this major policy shift will affect our military, our society, or the number of women who are sexually assaulted while serving their country. It may take years, or decades, before the trends become clear. Indeed, we will probably be quite surprised by some of the unintended consequences of this decision. This is not to say that the decision is wrong or ill-conceived -- or that the unexpected consequences that occur will be negative. My point is that we can rarely predict the long-term effects of change of this significance.

In the meantime, we can hope that lifting the ban will help female service members and their families. We can hope that the new policy leads to greater opportunities and greater career satisfaction for women who serve. And we can hope that Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey are right that this change will strengthen our force and lead to the development of a healthier and safer military for all of those who wear the uniform.

But if we really want to ensure a healthy force -- a force in which women have equal opportunity and in which women can no longer be sexually victimized by those with whom they serve or by those for whom they work -- we must remain proactive and vigilant. We must monitor the impact of this most recent policy change on attitudes and behavior moving forward, and we must continue to monitor progress made (or lack thereof) within the military to protect and support women.