Shirola: Women are essential to U.S. armed forces, deserve respect

Wesley Shirola, Op-Ed Contributor

Women have played an integral part in the United States military for most of this country’s history. In the Civil War, over 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight on the battlefields. When World War II broke out in the 1940s, nearly 350,000 women donned uniforms to serve in organizations — the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the Navy Women’s Reserve and the Army Nurse Corps — not to mention the thousands more on the U.S. home front who devoted themselves to the war effort in other ways.

Ever since, more and more women have been able to serve in the military, gaining additional rights over time. In 1948, women gained the right to claim veterans’ benefits. In 1994, the Department of Defense instituted less restrictive ground combat policies that opened 80 percent of military positions to both women and men. It was not until 2016 that all military occupations and positions became open to women; they were finally able to contribute to the U.S. armed forces and the defense of their country without explicit barriers, although others may still exist.

Yet while these barriers have fallen, a big one still stands in the way for many women: the lack of respect from many men.

U.S. army veteran and freelance writer Supriya Venkatesan told her story in the New York Times this month: she was walking by her drill sergeant seated at his desk and saw a “newly arrived female soldier” on the floor in front of him.

“She was on her back, dressed in T-shirt and shorts, doing scissor kicks,” Venkatesan wrote. “He sat perfectly poised to see her crotch and the insides of her thighs.”

One might assume this was just an isolated case — something that rarely occurs in the very institutions meant to protect and uphold the values of this country. They’d be wrong.

Service members reported 6,172 cases of sexual assault in 2016, significantly more than the 3,604 cases reported in 2012, according to NBC News. The Pentagon says the increased rates of reporting show that service members “trust in our response and support systems.” But to me, the fact that so many women are still reporting some form of sexual assault in the military in the first place is both unacceptable and saddening.

I don’t think many will forget the Marine Corps photo scandal in March, in which intimate photos of several female Marines were secretly shared in a members-only Facebook group of active-duty and retired Marines. This is yet another deeply disheartening example of the discrimination that women in combat face — clear evidence that we still have a long way to go to achieving full equality.

Incidents like these need to serve as a reminder that — despite the progress we’ve made — we are still a long way off from achieving gender equality in not only the military, but nearly every other industry in the U.S. as well. So, I urge you: write your representatives, share these stories with your friends and family and keep fighting to further women’s rights in the military. Women are an essential part of our military and have been since the American Revolution. It’s time to give women in combat the respect and dignity they deserve.

Wesley Shirola is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.