On January 23, news broke that outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had issued a directive that the military's ban on women in combat would be lifted. The New York Times reported that his decision was in response to unanimous agreement among the Joint Chiefs of Staff as expressed in a letter to Panetta:
Mr. Panetta’s decision came after he received a Jan. 9 letter from Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stated in strong terms that the armed service chiefs all agreed that “the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”
The Times article said it was unclear why the Joint Chiefs decided to act now after years of discussion, although there is speculation that recent threats of legal action may have played a role. However, a Government Accountability Office report issued on January 29 raises some questions about the timing of such a monumental change in policy.
The broad focus of the report is spelled out in its title: "DOD Has Taken Steps to Meet the Health Needs of Deployed Servicewomen, but Actions Are Needed to Enhance Care for Sexual Assault Victims." An explanation of the special focus on sexual assault victims appears early in the report [emphasis added]:
The roles for women in the military have been expanding and evolving, particularly since the Persian Gulf War more than 2 decades ago. Formerly, servicewomen served primarily in supportive roles in overseas U.S. military operations. Today, servicewomen are integral to combat support and counterinsurgency operations, and they serve in many roles they previously did not hold. In late 2011, for example, women began serving aboard Navy submarines. In early 2012, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced that changes to its assignment policies would result in more than 14,000 additional positions being opened to women, including positions in select direct ground combat units. Further, while sexual assault victimization is not unique to women, the presence of women in new roles suggests that continued vigilance with respect to this issue is needed. Given the expanding and evolving role of women in the military, the health and wellness of servicewomen plays an important role in overall military readiness.
According to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, this report was originally due by December 31, 2012. As mentioned above, the report was released on January 29, but given that the paragraph above does not mention the lifting of the women in combat ban, the GAO report was apparently finalized prior to Panetta's announcement. This policy change, much more far reaching than even the change opening "14,000 additional positions" in early 2012, exponentially increases the need for "continued vigilance" regarding "sexual assault victimization" that the GAO calls for. Therefore, the timing of the announcement lifting the ban and the DOD's reaction to the GAO report recommendations is curious.
The GAO made two recommendations at the conclusion of its inquiry regarding "sexual assault victimization":
To enhance the medical and mental health care for servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault, GAO recommends that DOD (1) develop department-level guidance on the provision of care to victims of sexual assault; and (2) take steps to improve first responders' compliance with the department's requirements for annual refresher training. DOD did not concur with the first recommendation, but cited steps it is taking that appear consistent with the recommendation. DOD concurred with the second recommendation.