Monday, April 23, 2018
Opinion

Column: Remember the women who fought for America

This Memorial Day we salute — to paraphrase President Lincoln — all who hath borne the battle. This includes America's female service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Did you know that women have been serving in combat as far back as our first fight for freedom, the Revolutionary War?

In today's military, women can do it all. They repair fighter planes and fly them. They carry weapons while they patrol war zones, command ships sailing "in harm's way," drive tanks and lead infantry troops into combat.

The current generation of female service members now officially serves in combat roles, but opportunities for women in the military have come in fits and starts.

In 1948, women could for the first time claim veterans' benefits.

In 1976 — 200 years since they started contributing in combat — women could finally attend military service academies.

In 1993, women were authorized to serve on combat ships and fly fighter jets.

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the onset of more than a decade of unconventional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, women have served with distinction in the new blurred zone between combat and noncombat.

In 2015, all combat jobs became open to women with no exceptions, acknowledging that no door will be closed to those who can meet the challenge. Hundreds of women have entered previously closed occupational specialties, and women are beginning to enter the operational infantry and training pipelines for special operations careers across the services.

As of November 2016, 166 women have "given the last full measure of devotion" fighting against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2003, 1,033 women have been wounded in battle and more than 9,000 have been recognized for combat operations.

Despite the commitment of women in the armed services stretching back to the birth of America, recent polling has revealed that only 27 percent of female military members and veterans feel that the public recognizes their service, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. All of us must do more to highlight and value the contributions of our female service members and veterans.

Today, 1.6 million veterans are women, and it is estimated that females will represent 11 percent of the veteran population by 2020, up from 8.4 percent in 2015. It is the fastest-growing population in the veteran community.

With increased participation comes a need to ensure that codes that govern conduct and laws that direct care reflect today's diverse military. I was proud to join with U.S. Reps. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., in support of the PRIVATE Act, which recently passed in the U.S. House. It brings the Uniform Code of Military Justice up to date when it comes to rogue Internet posts during these changing times. The military also needs to keep health care up to date for female service members, which is why I co-sponsored the Access to Contraception for Women Service members and Dependents Act. It would allow military women to access all forms of FDA-approved contraception with no health insurance co-pay.

Further, I recently co-sponsored the bipartisan Deborah Sampson Act, which is named after a warrior who disguised herself as a man to fight the British in America's Revolutionary War. She served honorably, but sadly was not recognized for her service until after her death.

Support for the legislation is building rapidly, but I urge the rest of my colleagues to lend their support to advance care and support of women veterans. America succeeds when women veterans receive the care they need, and by targeting key areas, we can be on the front lines of change. These include peer-to-peer assistance, legal and support services, newborn care and VA facilities so they are more inclusive of the care women veterans need. I was proud to champion the Female Veterans Suicide Prevention Act last year as a first step in data-tracking and reporting, but it should be widespread to help ensure improved medical and support services for women veterans, and the Deborah Sampson Act also proposes to do that.

In general, the Deborah Sampson Act aims to fill critical gaps in VA care for women vets. In addition to its substantive changes, the Sampson Act asks the VA to ensure that our brave women warriors cannot fail to know they have the love of a grateful nation by revisiting the agency's motto, which comes from President Lincoln's Second Inaugural: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle." As we know in these tough times, words can welcome or off put. Let us commit to unquestioningly welcoming and serving our women warriors so that on this Memorial Day and indeed all days we are honoring "she who have borne the battle."

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, represents Florida's congressional District 14, which covers Tampa and parts of Hillsborough County. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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