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Column: Now more than ever, America needs women in armed forces

At the recent congressional hearings on sexual assault in the armed forces, Sen. John McCain asserted that he could not give his "unqualified support" for a young woman's wish to join the military.

By saying this, McCain sent a message that could potentially harm America's security. The fact of the matter is we need more women in the ranks, not fewer.

Much of the concern is the result of a recent Pentagon survey that estimated 26,000 of 1.4 million military personnel suffered "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012. To be clear, even one case of sexual assault or unwanted contact is too many, but it is important to know that in this particular survey the majority of those 26,000 were men, not women.

Yes, women do report a higher percentage of unwanted contacts than men, and the 2012 figure is higher than 2010, but it is still lower than 2006's estimated 34,000 unwanted contacts.

Much criticism has been leveled at military leadership, but here's what the survey actually found:

• 88 percent of women and 94 percent of men indicated their leadership does well in making it clear that sexual assault has no place in the military;

•80 percent of women and 88 percent of men indicated their leadership does well in promoting a unit climate based on mutual respect and trust;

• 77 percent of women and 86 percent of men indicated their leadership does well in leading by example;

• and 73 percent of women and 85 percent of men indicated their leadership does well in creating an environment where victims would feel comfortable reporting.

Perfect? Hardly. More work to do? Absolutely. But many civilian institutions wrestle with this issue. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 19 percent of women suffer attempted or completed sexual assault at college.

Dissuading women from joining is not the way to fix the military's sexual assault problem. Women in the service can help effect change from within through their example, their wisdom and their hard work. Lawyer and journalist Susan Estrich once said, "You can't change the rules if you're not in the room."

America needs her best and brightest to meet the complex security challenges of the 21st century. When an entire gender is discouraged from joining the all-volunteer military, it will be, by definition, a less talented force. It really is that simple.

No one can say that unwanted sexual contacts won't happen in the military or anywhere else, and the military can be a dangerous place for reasons wholly apart from sexual assault. But it can also be an exciting adventure of vital public service.

If women really do turn away from military service, the heartbreak of sexual assault will be compounded into a calamity that threatens the nation's security even more than it already does. America needs her daughters in uniform.

Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is a retired Air Force major general and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke Law School.

Column: Now more than ever, America needs women in armed forces 06/13/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 13, 2013 7:11pm]

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