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 week, as he sat beside Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and announced the end of a decades-long ban barring women from serving in combat roles in the U.S. Armed Forces, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey -- the nation's top military officer -- acknowledged that the ban created two classes of service members: the all-male "warriors" and a service class, to which all female members of the military were delegated. "The more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally," said Gen. Dempsey, in explaining his support for the policy shift.
This is an important acknowledgement for a number of reasons. Rape runs rampant in the military not because there are large groups of hot-blooded American men running around with physical urges that women must be protected from. Rape is not about sex -- it's about power. What happened at Lackland Air Force Base wasn't a sex scandal or some unfortunate behavior -- it was a crime spree.
Actions speak louder than words. By institutionalizing the thinking that women are incapable of combat service, the Armed Forces implicitly stated that women were inferior to men serving in the ranks, creating a culture in which rape and sexual harassment are somehow acceptable byproducts of service -- "occupational hazards," according to The Invisible War. By engraining such terms into the minds of service members -- and the wider public -- we've been setting ourselves up to fail in the fight against military rape.
Some have pointed to "the rape issue" as a reason to maintain the ban on female combat service. But ending rape in the military and integrating women into combat roles are far from mutually exclusive -- in fact, equalizing female service members will help create a culture of greater respect that could seriously lower the incidence of rape in the military. Lifting the combat exclusion for women sends a clear message: women are capable of fighting for their country, and service is not gender-specific.
Despite the ban on female combat service, many women are already serving in combat roles. But because of the antiquated Pentagon policy, they've been barred from career advancement or recognition for their service. Two such women -- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) -- are currently serving in the United States Congress. And as Rep. Duckworth pointed out in a recent interview, she didn't lose both of her legs in a bar fight.
Combat service is integral to ascending to positions of leadership and authority in the military, and because their combat service wasn't recognized, women have had to move up in the ranks through much slower and much less accessible tracks. Lifting the combat exclusion sets the stage for the hundreds and thousands of service members in the U.S. Armed Forces -- including the 20 percent of new recruits who are female -- to see strong, female leaders in the military, serving in positions of authority and worthy of great respect.
Lifting the combat exclusion isn't going to solve the issue of rape in the military by itself. Considering that approximately 11,000 of the estimated 19,000 military sexual assaults target men, this issue doesn't end with improving equality for women. Commanding officers and military leaders must remain dedicated and vigilant. But this is an important and visible step forward towards equality and respect for all service members.