Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
Who Gets to Call Themselves a Combat Veteran? Women Vets as Political Candidates
Recent reports that the service records of female veterans running for elected office are facing attacks from their male political rivals stirred up some bad memories.
A few years ago, as we walked near campus after a class in graduate school, we talked about why women veterans seemed more reticent to talk about their military service than men. The two of us, both Navy veterans, were both proud of our service but reflected that even when we were serving, our service was often treated as if it was less valuable than that of the men we served next to, devalued only because we happened to serve while female. We’ve both been asked the same frustrating question: “You didn’t go in harm’s way, did you?”
Often accusatory or dismissive in tone, the question assumes that women are appendages to the “real” military. But historically, this has never been the case. The military is dangerous work and women have fought and died alongside male service members in the line of duty since the earliest years of the U.S. armed forces. Even well before they could officially join the military as nurses, women disguised themselves as men to fight, or served in roles like intelligence or logistics, that are now military occupational specialties. Some, like Deborah Sampson, who was wounded in battle during the Revolutionary War, actually went on to receive a pension.
The U.S. government, however, has often minimized the role of women because of fear of political and public opinion backlash. Even the definition of “combat” itself is sticky. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a service member is eligible to receive Combat Pay (a.k.a. Imminent Danger Pay) if they served in a Department of Defense or Executive Order designated combat zone, which includes both landmasses, air spaces, and bodies of water.
The U.S. government has changed the definition of what constitutes combat over a half dozen times since 1948, the year women were first accepted as active duty servicemembers. Even after lifting the ban on women flying in combat missions in 1993, the Pentagon took great care to state that women were excluded from “engaging in direct combat on the ground.” The real reason for changing the definition of “combat” was simple: to say that women weren’t in it. Combat — whatever it meant — was a protected space. As one of us recently wrote, combat “is often deliberately paired with defining masculinity: combat is where the men are; men are defined by combat, and combat service is privileged.” Ironically, as long as women were excluded, “combat” was a so-called “safe space” to prove masculinity.
In Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, women served “in support of” but directly alongside special operations units as members of “Cultural Support” and “Female Engagement” Teams. Nevermind that these women were specially trained alongside their male counterparts and deployed to the exact same dangerous areas. Words matter, and as long as we didn’t say women were serving in combat, they weren’t there. Combat becomes a moving target: if your foot doesn’t physically kick in a door, it’s not combat, right?
Once we take the oath of enlistment or commissioning, we serve based on the needs of the military. We go where were are sent. Whether that is on a ship in the Western Pacific, a hospital in a combat zone, or a plane patrolling a no-fly zone, we are all putting our lives at risk and answering the call of service, regardless of gender. Plenty of male veterans have not directly served in the line of fire, but very rarely is their service ever questioned. They are assumed to have served in combat.
The fractious conflicts that have taken place post-9/11 have made it very clear that there is no such thing as “front lines”: an attack can take place at any place, and any time. Beyond that, military service is inherently dangerous: more service members are killed in accidents than in combat. Moreover, the shamefully high rate of sexual assault in the U.S. military means a woman is more likely to be attacked by her own teammates than the enemy.
Just as words matter in shaping and defining roles in the military, they matter on the political battlefield. According to the political opponents of Senator Joni Ernst, and more recently, Congressional candidates Maura Sullivan and Lynne Blankenbecker, combat is not a term they are authorized to use when discussing their military service. But why? Opponents claim that if they do not have combat decorations such as the Combat Action Badge and Combat Action Ribbon, they do not qualify as combat veterans.
It is absolutely important for veterans seeking to continue serving their country in elected office to ensure that they are honestly portraying their military experience to their voters and constituents, most of whom have very little first-hand knowledge of military life. Veterans Campaign, a non-partisan non-profit organization committed to preparing veterans for a “Second Service” in civic leadership, teaches a signature workshop module titled “Bulletproofing Your Service Record,” to help veterans understand how to genuinely and unpretentiously communicate their background to voters in a way that they can understand and relate to.
None of the candidates we’ve discussed claim to have served in missions or operations where they did not, nor are they claiming to have awards they did not receive. At what point do we say “enough is enough” and stop debating the minutia of what combat is and who was there? Attacking another veteran’s service in this manner, is “blue falcon” behavior, petty, backstabbing, and antithetical to being part of the military community. We are on the same team, deeply committed to our country. Service is about giving what you have to give to your country and a community, and these women are trying to do just that. That should be enough.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer took the reins at the Pentagon on Monday, becoming the third acting defense secretary since January.
Spencer is expected to temporarily lead the Pentagon while the Senate considers Army Secretary Mark Esper's nomination to succeed James Mattis as defense secretary. The Senate officially received Esper's nomination on Monday.
U.S. Special Operations Command may be on the verge of making the dream of flying infantry soldiers a reality, but the French may very well beat them to it.
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron shared an unusual video showing a man on a flying platform — widely characterized as a "hoverboard" — maneuvering through the skies above the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris armed with what appears to be a dummy firearm.
The video was accompanied with a simple message of "Fier de notre armée, moderne et innovante," which translates to "proud of our army, modern and innovative," suggesting that the French Armed Forces may be eyeing the unusual vehicle for potential military applications.
A lawmaker wants to know if the Pentagon ever exposed the American public to ticks infected with bioweapons
If you've ever wondered if the Pentagon has ever exposed the American public to ticks infected with biological weapons, you're not alone.
Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) authored an amendment to the House version of the Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would require the Defense Department Inspector General's Office to find out if the U.S. military experimented with using ticks and other insects as biological weapons between 1950 and 1975.
If such experiments took place, the amendment would require the inspector general's office to tell lawmakers if any of the ticks or other bugs "were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design."
The Taliban drove his family out of Afghanistan when he was a child. Now he wants to go back as a Marine
There's no one path to military service. For some, it's a lifelong goal, for others, it's a choice made in an instant.
For 27-year-old Marine Pvt. Atiqullah Assadi, who graduated from Marine Corps bootcamp on July 12, the decision to enlist was the culmination of a journey that began when he and his family were forced to flee their home in Afghanistan.
The Air Force has administratively separated the Nellis Air Force Base sergeant who was investigated for making racist comments about her subordinates in a video that went viral last year, Task & Purpose has learned.