Women have served in combat for years. Indeed, more than 20,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight hundred were wounded; more than 130 died.
But when outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the military's official 19 year ban on women in combat branches will end, it was a surprise even to some who have pushed for the change for years. The next time America goes to war, we'll have women (at least some) leading our infantry platoons and artillery batteries.
I covered a war as a reporter and wrote a book about it, and I also served in the Army Reserve (although not in the infantry). So, I have some sense of what this monumental change might mean within the culture of the military. What might be missed in the discussion, however, is the way this move will impact who leads American innovation, business and entrepreneurship.
Here are four ways that women serving in combat could help shape the world of business.
1. Female vets will become entrepreneurs.
This might be the most obvious impact. The U.S. military is often called the best unofficial MBA program there is. Nearly one in 10 small businesses is owned by a U.S. veteran, and programs across the country help former service members become entrepreneurs. Opening the combat arms to women likely means more women will wind up serving in the military as a whole, so expect to see more female veterans launching new businesses in the years ahead.
2. Women will lead the military...
It's not as if women have not been represented in the highest levels of the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishments. Three of the past four secretaries of state have been women, and we've had two female four-star generals in the U.S. military (both running weapons development and logistics). But the highest levels of leadership in the U.S. military were unlikely to be open to women until they'd had the official chance to lead troops in combat. That leadership is likely to change, and faster than we might realize. (It wasn't that long ago that women had a hard time being admitted to law schools and medical schools; now women make up the majority of new lawyers and doctors.)
3. ...and so, women will lead the defense industry.
The official U.S. defense budget is $530 billion. When you count things like the nuclear program at the Department of Energy and the budget of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, some estimates put total defense spending at more than $1 trillion. At defense companies large and small, top executive ranks are dominated by men, in large part because so many of those executives are top-ranking veterans. Women in combat will mean more high-ranking military women; that will eventually translate to more women in defense.
4. The veteran fraternity will become more of a sorority.
I spent a lot of time a few years ago interviewing Chris Michel, founder of military.com. Michel built an Internet empire on his understanding of how well the members of the U.S. military community look out for each other. Women are a part of this fraternity already, of course, but more women serving in combat will lead to more women serving, in general. That will lead to more women participating in what's probably the most energetic mutual assistance network there is: the community of U.S. veterans.