LGBT leaders ask how far will equality in military go?

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. - PHOTO: Provided

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey released details Jan. 24 on the rescission of the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule for women and that the Department of Defense plans to remove gender-based barriers to service.

Panetta, in a statement, said, “Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles. The department’s goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."

The president, in a statement, praised the decision: "Today, by moving to open more military positions – including ground combat units – to women, our armed forces have taken another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens. This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military.

More than 150 women have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president said, calling them “patriots whose sacrifices show that valor knows no gender.”

The DOD reports that women make up about 15 percent, or nearly 202,400, of the U.S. military’s 1.4 million active personnel.  Over the course of the past decade, more than 280,000 women have deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Panetta's announcement follows a review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who unanimously concluded that now is the time to move forward with the "full intent to integrate women into occupational fields to the maximum extent possible."

The move builds on a February 2012 decision to open more than 14,000 additional positions to women by allowing women to be assigned to select positions in ground combat units at the battalion level.

"The Joint Chiefs share common cause on the need to start doing this now and to doing this right.  We are committed to a purposeful and principled approach,” stated Dempsey.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff detailed priorities with the removal of barriers to women in ground combat:

• Ensuring the success of our nation’s war-fighting forces by preserving unit readiness, cohesion and morale.

• Ensuring all servicemen and women are given the opportunity to succeed and are set up for success with viable career paths.

• Retaining the trust and confidence of the American people to defend this nation by promoting policies that maintain the best quality and most qualified people.

• Validating occupational performance standards, both physical and mental, for all military occupational specialties, specifically those that remain closed to women.

• Ensuring that a sufficient cadre of mid-grade/senior women enlisted and officers are assigned to commands at the point of introduction to ensure success in the long run. This, the DOD said, may require an adjustment to recruiting efforts, assignment processes and personnel policies.

Panetta this week directed military departments to submit detailed plans by May 15 for the implementation of the rule change, and to move expeditiously to integrate women into previously closed positions.

With national attention on the Pentagon decision, LGBT civil rights activists reminded Panetta and the White House that the military continues to unequal treatment of gay servicemembers and their families. The lifting of the gay ban – the "don't ask, don't tell" policy – allows gays and lesbians to serve openly. However, federal law and military rule has prevented equal benefits and treatment for gay servicemembers.

"Secretary Panetta can easily take regulatory steps on his own to ensure equality for the brave gay and lesbian service members and their families who already sacrifice so much for this nation," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign. "We urge the secretary to act immediately, and ensure all members of the armed services have equal access to housing benefits, military ID cards, legal services and spousal privileges. These regulatory changes can be made independently of existing federal law, like the Defense of Marriage Act."

HRC said some of the regulatory changes Panetta could involve:

• Housing. Same-sex spouses and partners in the military are ineligible for the economic benefits that come with on-base housing, such as rent-free living quarters.

• Military ID cards. Same-sex spouses and partners are ineligible for the identification card that is essential for accessing bases, morale and recreation programs, and a number of other on-base amenities and services.

• Access to commissaries and exchanges. Same-sex spouses and partners can’t access the discounted stores where most military families typically save an average of 30 percent on grocery bills.

• Personnel assignments. Military regulations do not include same-sex spouses or partners when considering assignments. However, opposite-sex, dual-career military couples may be assigned to the same geographic reason.

• Legal services. Opposite-sex military service members and their families have access to free legal services on a variety of items, including the drafting of wills and serving as advocate and counsel. Same-sex spouses and partners do not have access to these free legal services.

• Spousal privilege. The Rules of Evidence in the Manual for Courts-Martial grants opposites-sex spouses the privilege to refuse to testify against one another in criminal cases – a benefit not extended to same-sex spouses or partners.

On the Web…

The Joint Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Women in Service Review Memorandum is at The Chairman’s Women in Service Review Memorandum is at