We caught up with Under Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy after he spoke at the 29th annual Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Virginia, on the topic of leading with purpose and impacting the future.

Murphy, a former Army officer, was the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress, where he led the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Now, he’s the number two civilian running the Department of the Army inside the Pentagon.

Murphy spoke with Task & Purpose about implementing gender-integration policy, women in combat, and how to foster the right attitude at the small-unit level where the policy change will have the greatest impact.

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What is it like being a male senior leader in the Army, having these conversations and talking about women’s leadership at this time?

Every senior leader worth their salt believes actions speak louder than words. I’ve built a team in this position and prior, as a member of Congress that is diverse. … I don’t pay lip service, I lead by example and I do that not because it’s the right thing to do, I do it because having diverse teams and not just gender and race and orientation, but in thought and in background is critically important. … I have diverse members on my team because it makes us a more dynamic unit.

What does it mean for the Army that senior leaders are engaging in that conversation and are there any challenges to that, any holdouts? What is the climate like?

No. I mean, listen, it’s been a historic year for women in the military. You know, we’ve had three women graduate from Ranger School, the toughest leadership school in the world. We have a combatant commander who’s a woman, but this isn’t anything new. We’ve had women serving in combat since the Revolutionary War.

My generation of veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think it’s pretty clear. When I deployed after 9/11, we had women who operated in a combat team, and that’s with the 82nd Airborne division, we had 125 women soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had 872 women in the Army who have been wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, so to me we’ve had women since the beginning of combat in American history, but for the first time ever we’re opening every MOS, and it’s about time. I think women will obviously look to their leaders for support, as officers, noncommissioned officers in combat arms, infantry and armor, but they’re gonna do phenomenal because our whole system is based on meritocracy.

Under Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy, speaks to the audience after accepting award during the Department of Defense LGBT Pride Month Event Celebration held on the Pentagon Courtyard on June 8. Department of Defense photo
Under Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy, speaks to the audience after accepting award during the Department of Defense LGBT Pride Month Event Celebration held on the Pentagon Courtyard on June 8.

Yeah, as you said women in combat, that’s not new. Do you think in this case, policy is catching up to that now?

No doubt. I think Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Secretary Eric Fanning are all — we’re all in agreement that we are a better institution when we’re diverse; and study after study has shown that, and we have a duty to the American public to make sure they have the best military that we can have and that it gets better every day. It gets better every day when we make it more diverse. So for someone like myself, I’ve deployed twice after 9/11 … I look at the all-volunteer force under the spectrum that we’re in the longest wars in American history, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’ll be 15 years in September, and so if we want to maintain an all-volunteer force, I want to make sure we don’t alienate 50% of the population in America. That we actually recruit them and we show them there’s people and four-star generals like Ann Dunwoody that serve in our Army. … We have great stories of women leaders and I work every day with people like Maj. Gen. Laura Richardson, who runs legislative affairs here at the Pentagon … it’s just an impressive team that we have. That’s why it’s such an honor to be back on the Army team as the United States Army under secretary.

What do you think is the general perception of gender integration inside of the Army?

I think most soldiers could care less what gender, race, or creed they are. They care if you can fire your M4 assault rifle; can you kick down a door in Baghdad or in Kabul; and can you get the job done?

These young men and women, they’ve gone to school with men and women in their classes, they’ve played sports, co-ed sports, it’s not that dramatic of a change, or frankly a change at all.

I’ve heard the topic of gender integration framed as a policy change that needs a cultural change to follow it? Do you think that’s the case, or do you think the culture’s already there and the policy just allows it to happen?

I think that the American culture is there that we believe in equality and most Americans believe in equality and it boils down to: Do you believe in equality? Yes or no. Are you willing to fight for equality? Yes or no.

I think you have senior leaders like Ash Carter, Gen. Mark Milley, Eric Fanning, like myself that are willing to fight for equality and that’s why you’re seeing the results that you are.

What would your response be to people who oppose gender integration?

I think they should go work out with Maj. Lisa Jaster, and I guarantee they can’t hang with her. She’s one of the toughest Rangers I know. I should say she’s one of the toughest Rangers and CrossFitters that I know.

What advice would you have for small-unit leaders at the battalion, company level, and even down at the platoon level going through the process of gender integration?

I would say keep it simple. Treat everyone the same, give them the opportunity the same. Treat others how you’d want to be treated or how you’d want your sister to be treated. … As long as we have true equality and there’s not two standards, but one standard in every military occupational specialty there will not be any problems, but again having one standard. I think that dissuades anyone else from pointing fingers. If a man or woman can do the job, give them the opportunity to do the job. We don’t care where they came from, who their mommy or daddy is, we care what they can do for their team, for the Army.

Do you support the requirement for women to register for the draft?

I’m on record in my Senate testimony that I think it’s a national conversation, but I’m in favor for women to register for the draft.