Four Military Women in Congress: Does It Matter?

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Four Military Women in Congress: Does It Matter?

Meet the four Congresswomen who collectively bring active duty, Reserve and Guard experience with them to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. 

Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa

Representative Tammy Duckworth, R-Illinois

Representative Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii

Representative Martha McSally, R-Arizona

In the 2015-2017 114th Congress which opened this past January, these four military women are amongst the 101 of 541(about 19% of the members/delegates) whose resumes reflect military service—20 in the Senate and 81 in the House of Representatives.  One serves in the Senate and three in the House.  All are combat veterans.  They share historic precedence with a record 108 women, 20% of Congress, who now serve in the Senate (20) and in the House (88).  Since the 92d Congress in 1971-1973, the number of Congressional members and citizens in the general population who served in the armed forces has been steadily declining

Does it really matter whether or not women with military service are represented by military veteran Congresswomen?  It does.  They are the nationally-elected public face and voice of women’s military service experience.  We know that only 1.4 percent of all living female Americans have ever served in the armed services compared to 13.4 percent of all living male Americans.  We also know that more females are projected to serve in the military and experience combat.  Chairman Dempsey, Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited that 'less than 25 percent of young people—both male and female—can actually meet the standards for military enlistment today.  Those standards disqualify more men than women.’  These women were the beneficiaries of stateside and overseas Department of Defense services and know firsthand the day-to-day work and family challenges.  Their “been there and done that boots on the ground” assignments mean servicewomen and other legislators are more likely to have ready access to credible and influential collegial resources.   And if these women aren’t familiar with a particular issue, they can more quickly “ramp up” because they share a familiarity with military culture and common heritage.   

They can have direct and lasting impact on long-overdue Department of Defense and Veterans Administration (VA) systemic reform that ensures women who serve are equitably trained, equipped and cared for.  Military women as members of the total force need to be 24/7-ready for peace and wartime operations.  In addition to meeting validated fitness and occupational standards, they need protective gear that fits and is manufactured in the volume required to meet operational demands and comprehensive health care services wherever they are assigned.  They should not be wearing ill-fitting men’s uniforms and gear and foregoing comprehensive health care, which includes researched, evidenced-based gender-specific care.  These two issues alone definitively indicate that institutional commitment to appropriately provide for 20% of the nation’s military has shamefully languished, putting force readiness at risk and ultimately contributing to veterans’ long-term health problems.  Take a look at the following abbreviated history…it warrants a double-take.

1948:  The Women Armed Services Integration Act passed giving women permanent legal status in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Special women's "components” or auxiliaries would no longer be formed for and during military emergencies only. Women in all the services could now serve in the Regular Armed Forces and the Reserves, subject to military authority and regulations and entitled to veteran benefits.

1980:  32 years after women were legally integrated into the armed forces, the Veterans Administration opened its doors to all women veterans.  For the first time, women and the National Guard were asked if they served on active duty in the U.S. military on the U.S. decennial census.  

1982:  34 years after women were legally integrated into the armed forces, the first GAO study, “Actions Needed to Insure that Female Veterans Have Equal Access to VA Benefits,” was published reporting that women veterans were not informed of their lawful benefits and did not have equal access to care including complete physical exams and gynecological care.

1992:  44 years afterwomen were legally integrated into the armed forces and a decade after the 1982 GAO report noted above, the first gender-specific carelaw, Public Law (P. L.) 102-585, Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, Title I, was enacted on November 4, 1992, authorizing VA to provide gender-specific services such as Papanicolaou tests (Pap smears), breast examinations, management of menopause, mammography, and general reproductive health care services to eligible women veterans.

2011:  63 years after women were legally integrated into the armed forces and two years after the VA Secretary announced “an end to veteran homelessness” by 2015, a GAO report noted that neither VA nor HUD collect data on the total number of homeless women veterans in the general population. HUD collects data on homeless women and on homeless veterans,but does not collect detailed information on homeless women veterans.  Further, they lack data on the characteristics and needs of these women on a national, state, and local level.  

2013:  65 years after women were legally integrated into the armed forces and unofficially serving in combat roles:

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the military service policy ban on women in combat on January 24th.  No law banned women from serving in combat.

The House Armed Services Committee via the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Army secretary to brief congressional committees within six months about its progress on protective equipment for female soldiersTesting prototypes continues.

The VA launched the Women Veterans Call Center (1-8557-VA-WOMEN).  There are over 2.2 million women veterans, but many still do not self-identify and reach in for the services and benefits they earned.  It’s the fastest growing segment of the veteran population.  Since 2009, the number of women veterans enrolled in VA healthcare increased by almost 22 percent to 591,500.  

2015:  67 years after women were legally integrated into the armed forces, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee submitted bills mandating Department of Defense military clinics and hospitals to dispense any method of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration in stateside and overseas locations during peace and wartime, and that servicewomen have access to family planning and counseling.

So what has everyone been waiting for?  The Department of Defense’s obligation is to organize, train, equip, prepare, and maintain all their forces, not some of their forces, for peace and wartime operations.  The responsibility of the Veterans Administration is to provide comprehensive health care to all veterans, not some of their veterans.  If the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration is allowed to selectively execute their responsibilities, then the nation implicitly gives them the latitude to discriminate.  Both federal agencies need to proactively identify and rectify their service gaps and not wait for someone to discover the shortfalls and ultimately be micromanaged by Congress.  Otherwise, military units and veterans are set up to fail and could ultimately lose their lives for controllable reasons.  Those sent into the line of fire expect their leadership to have their backs, literally and figuratively, all the time…not some of the time. 

In 33 short years, female volunteers will have legally served in the U.S. military a full century…100 years.  Will Congress still need to be directly involved with ensuring the Services and the VA accomplish their official missions in accordance with the intent of policy and law…to organize, prepare, train, and equip all their troops for success in a fully-integrated U.S. military and later, care for all those who served? 

Substantial and enduring progress for women with military service is a necessary mandate for our four military veteran Congresswomen.  They have committed and knowledgeable Congressional allies who’ve worked many of these tough issues without the benefit of resident women veterans’ experience.  Their voice absolutely matters on many levels and they need to hear from other women with military service so they can do the best representation possible.  They have their work cut out for them if history is a valid litmus test.