As the first woman to lead a Marine Corps infantry platoon, 1st Lt. Marina Hierl recently made history. But that history didn’t begin this week or this year. Or even this decade.
Indeed, Hierl’s service is the latest realization of a long march toward enabling Americans who qualify to serve in all roles for which they meet the standard. This march is neither new nor novel, but it is the product of decades of effort, struggle and achievement by those who have sought simply to serve their nation.
For years, I had the privilege of interviewing women in uniform who broke ground and told me over and over again, as Hierl told the New York Times, that they didn’t seek to make history or to prove a point. They simply sought to give their country their all.
During the post-9/11 wars, women in service built upon the gains made by those who came before them. They stood on the shoulders of women who for decades had served across all branches of the military, but could not reach the front lines, because they remained officially banned from ground combat, according to a 1994 memo written by then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin.
The post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq changed all that. In these wars, where the front line was now nowhere and everywhere, and no place was safe from rocket-propelled grenades or incoming fire, women took on all kinds of new roles, including those in which they officially could not serve.
I met women who joined Marines on patrol in Afghanistan, led convoy resupplies, and were part of a generation which stood on the shoulders of women who came before them by serving to their utmost. Women in uniform in the post-9/11 wars earned Silver Stars for “gallantry in action” and valor on the battlefield. They served in artillery and engineering roles officially “coded” men-only, as was the case with “Ashley’s War,” a book I wrote about the women who were recruited in 2011 to join special operations forces on the battlefield — first in ones and twos — and then, more formally, as part of the Cultural Support Teams on combat operations alongside Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.
I have never met a woman in uniform who has said she wanted to do anything other than serve her nation to the best of her abilities. Indeed, one former officer I interviewed over the years told me she joined the Army in the late 1990s having no idea that the fact that she was a woman would keep her from doing a job she dreamed of: serving in the infantry. She became an intelligence officer instead, figuring that was as close as she could get to serving on the front lines. Many others I met became military police. And, in January of 2013, they officially got the okay to begin serving in other roles as the path to full integration of women opened.
To go back and watch the discussion on women in combat evolve is to wade back into distant history, though we are only talking about five years. In half a decade, a lifetime’s worth of change has occurred, brought to you by women who pushed the boundaries of what was allowed, leaders who wanted the best people in the right roles and men who supported their sisters-in-arms.
In 2013, the women of the Cultural Support Teams played a role in the opening of all combat roles to women. At a 2013 news conference on special operations integration of women, Special Operations Command’s Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick said, “quite frankly I was encouraged by just the physical performance of some of the young girls that aspire to go in the Cultural Support Teams. They very well may provide a foundation for ultimate integration.”
Then came 2015 and the opening of Ranger School to women. Two West Point grads made history just by seeking to push themselves through the Army’s premier leadership course. One became the Army’s first female infantry officer. Since that first barrier was broken, 13 more women have graduated from Ranger School. And today, if they qualify, women can become Army Rangers and Navy SEALs in their own right.
For so many military women of previous generations I’ve had the privilege of meeting, the service of 1st Lt. Hierl is the realization of their hard work. They point toGrace Murray Hopper and Harriet Ida Pickens as women who led the way. As Hierl told the New York Times, “I wanted to lead a platoon … I didn’t think there was anything better in the Marine Corps I could do.”
And just that simple fact, of being able to meet the standard to do a job you dream of, regardless of who you are, marks a new chapter in history for the US military and the nation. We are a nation which has no talent to spare. Making the most of the talents of those who dream of doing their best in service to America benefits all of us.