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The faces of U.S. soldiers in combat are beginning to change, but women aren’t just newly permitted on the front lines of the battlefield. They’re also at the forefront of the policy debate, with three of six Senate Armed Services subcommittee gavels now held by women.
Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Kay Hagan of North Carolina have taken the helms of the subcommittees on Personnel, Readiness and Management Support, and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, respectively. Two of those panels — Readiness and Emerging Threats — also have female ranking members in Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.
The changing composition of one of Congress’ most powerful committees is already beginning to shift the once-rigid conversation on the military, too. On Wednesday, Gillibrand will hold her first hearing as chairwoman — on sexual violence in the military.
“Having more women chairing subcommittees on the Armed Services Committee will make a difference ... the nature of the issues that will be explored, the type of hearings that will be held, will cover a broader base of issues,” she said.
Gillibrand, who was appointed to the House Armed Services Committee when she first arrived in Washington in 2007, brings years of experience on the issue of violence in the military to the subcommittee and says her time in the House taught her about the more “holistic” approach women can bring to the national security conversation.
“Women House members raised issues that hadn’t been raised,” Gillibrand said. “Instead of just the typical conversation on how many ships do we build, how many aircraft and equipment-oriented questions, there was a whole area of focus on well-being of the troops, and why was the divorce rate and the domestic violence rate higher than it had ever been, and what were we doing for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. ... It made a difference in terms of holistic approach.”
For years, conversation on sexual violence in the military has been dominated by the House, where Reps. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., founded the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.
Indeed, senators had been so reluctant to discuss sexual violence in the military — where the Department of Defense estimates 19,000 assaults occurred in 2011 — that when the director of “The Invisible War” tried to interview lawmakers in 2010, only House members would go on camera with him, according to Greg Jacob, a former Marine and policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network.
Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta later cited the acclaimed documentary as key to his decision to implement new rules regarding sexual assault.