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In Her Own Words

The Impart of Women's Leadership in Global Conflict Conference
The University of Edinburgh in collaboration with Vision
2020, Drexel College of Medicine's Institute of Women's Health and Leadership
TheScottish Parliament, sponsored by Malcolm Chisholm, MSP
June 14, 2013, 4:00 pm
Opening remarks by Kimberly Olson, Colonel, USAF (retired)
Grace After Fire

Thank you to the Center for the Study of Modern Conflict and Vision 2020 for giving women veterans a voice on an international platform. The enlightening and brilliant presentations on women in warfare drew a direct line between the historic efforts of women and today's opportunities for women. The University of Edinburgh was the perfect setting to make this connection with its own rich history and contemporary reputation.
In the eve of two decade-long conflicts, the United States Armed Forces finds itself in a perfect storm of social, political, and fundamental change. This turmoil has precedence following all of the major conflicts of this century: from WWI through Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The social evolution facing today's military stems from the realization that the US military raised, projected, and sustained an all-volunteer force through two major conflicts in the longest engagement the US has known. Another first is this all-volunteer force which is comprised of 20% women has them participating in combat areas of operations. Nearly 250,000 women served in Iraq and Afghanistan and many were in direct combat. But even with the participation of women, the military is far from a microcosm of American society—with only 1% of the population serving in uniform, today's military is small, unique, and isolated from the society it serves. In fact, 1 in every 5 recruits is a female and she is actually twice as educated as the civilian population. This influx of women is also seen in universities and colleges across American with women outpacing men in law and med school.

Recent congressional testimonies remind us that the military is an instrument of political power and when the military fall short of its responsibilities to serve, the political machine will tighten its control. This was evident as the military chiefs and service secretaries testified about gender violence and military sexual trauma to a half dozen female senators who basically said the "zero tolerance policy professed by the services was having zero effect." Equally as important was the decision of the Secretary of Defense to change the combat exclusion policy to allow women to serve in nearly every combat role. On the surface it appeared to be a dynamic shift for the military, but this policy change simply aligned itself with the realities of today's battle space. Technology and tactics demand new roles from military forces beyond combat and security. Just as important are diplomacy and reconstruction which often run concurrent within the same block or village as combat operations. Each tactic requires talented and flexible individuals to achieve the overall objective of peace. And those individuals can be men OR women.

Finally, to use an Army term, this pincher move of social and political pressures exerted on the military can cause fiction but like most organization, the military will act in its own self interest. So, when senior leaders adopt this new combat inclusion policy, the Armed Force benefits three ways:

First, with the demands and complications of today's battle space the military must have everyone within that space trained appropriately. By allowing women into combat roles this will ensure a better trained force within the area of operations. Second, the military must recruit and retain the best talent America can offer, therefore it needs more women within its ranks, not less, to solve the challenges facing the US and international community. Finally, the military is a closed personnel system and in order to successfully ascend in rank, combat experience is required. Corporation and other organizations have learned that a diverse leadership team around the board room table equates to higher profits, so too will there be better outcomes with senior women leaders at the war room tables in both the officer and NCO ranks. A diverse leadership team can ensure better decisions are made when it comes to sending American's greatest resource (her sons and daughters) into harms way.

As a side note, women in shared leadership roles align with one of Vision 2020 goals and the military is moving in the right directions.

To conclude, our host remarked that it took a war (World War I) to catapult women in the nursing field and begin the equality movement. It is fascinating that nearly 100 years later we see history repeat itself with these recent wars, now acting as catalysts to address violence against women, pay equity and women in senior leadership roles, especially in the US Armed Forces.