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Women are piloting fighter jets. They are joining the Marines. And they have the opportunity to serve in any military position, as long as they complete the training.
But women in the United States are not required to register for the draft. They can’t sign up even if they want to do so.
Democrats in Congress, backed by the nation’s military leaders and some Republicans, are pushing to expand selective service to women and men ages 18 to 25. This change is attached to a military bill now working its way through the Senate.
The last time the nation actually deployed the draft was 1973 during the Vietnam War, but for decades young men have registered in the event of a national crisis.
Sen. Mike Lee supports selective service, but he doesn’t want to see it changed. He sees this as a job for America’s young men — and young men only.
“This policy change is rushed and unnecessary in our current time of peace, and unduly harms women more than advancing any notion of equality,” the Utah Republican said in a recent statement. “While American women should be empowered to serve in our armed forces, they should not be forced to fight.”
Why Mike Lee doesn’t want women in the draft
The Utah lawmaker is offering a resolution, with five other Senate Republicans, opposing the change. It argues the draft is almost exclusively used to replace combat troops wounded or killed in battle.
The resolution notes women have a harder time meeting the physical fitness requirements to become a combat soldier than men and says “physical disadvantages between men and women often result in excessive fatigue and more frequent injuries in women.”
The resolution zeroes in on the Army combat fitness test and says women failed it 65% to 84% of the time, while men failed 10% to 30%.
It appears that women have performed better on this test over time, with the failure rate dropping to 60% in 2020, though men consistently have scored better.
Women now make up 16% of all enlisted soldiers.
Lee’s resolution ends by saying that having women sign up for selective service would “unduly increase the fatality and injury risks of women in the United States and hinder combat unit readiness in battle.”
This is not the first time Lee has weighed in on this issue. Congress debated requiring women to sign up for the draft in 2016, the year after the military lifted the ban on women serving in all combat roles.
That year, Lee wrote an opinion piece published by the Conservative Review.
“We are apparently now contemplating a future national emergency in which young women — as young as teenagers — are taken against their will, sent to boot camp and off to war… while eligible, able bodied young men are not,” Lee wrote. “As the father of a teenage daughter, as a husband and a brother and a Christian, I’m going to say this as politely as I can: This is completely unacceptable.”
He wrote that this is not about equality or privilege or discrimination but rather that the best war fighters are young men.
“It is a question of human nature and human survival — the same reason husbands (and not their wives and kids) are expected to grab the baseball bat and investigate strange noises in the middle of the night,” he wrote. “But, of course, the empirical case against conscripting women only points toward the moral case: Men are supposed to protect women and children, not the other way around. Everyone in all three groups knows this, however unfashionable it may be to say in some places.”
What a veteran from Utah thinks
Lee’s position is offensive to Amanda Holder, who went on two deployments to Iraq. The first was in 2005 with the Army Reserve. The second was in 2009 with the Tennessee National Guard. Her job was to drive trucks carrying fuel and ammo during a war where roadside bombs were a constant threat.
“I am a combat veteran,” said the Millcreek resident, “from before combat roles were ever opened to women.”
Holder, who describes herself as politically independent, helps lead a Facebook group for Utah women who served in the military. She reviewed the efforts to expand the draft to include women and Lee’s position at the request of The Salt Lake Tribune. She sees Lee’s resolution as perpetuating “an outdated sexist policy.”
“Many women have fought for our freedoms and want equality not just for us but for our diverse nation,” she said. “For Mr. Lee to say that women being mandated to register for the Selective Service System would hinder combat unit readiness in battle further shows he has not spent time with a unit preparing to mobilize for deployment or having come back from deployments. It was like a gut punch to see my senator state that, when in my experience women have strengthened the units they serve in.”
Utah’s other Republican senator, Mitt Romney, has not taken a position on this issue.
One notion on which Lee and Democratic President Joe Biden agree is that changes to the draft should be made by Congress, not by the courts.
What the commission recommends
In April, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to reject a petition calling for the current selective service program to be considered unconstitutional, saying that Congress hadn’t yet had a chance to act on the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission.
The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service issued its final report in March 2020. It received little attention at the time because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 11-member commission was created in 2017 to study whether women should have to sign up for the draft and how to increase public service.
It recommended that women should be required to register for selective service.
“Doing so promotes the national security of the United States by allowing the president to leverage the full range of talent and skills available during a national mobilization,” the commission wrote. “It also reaffirms the nation’s fundamental belief in a common defense, and signals that both men and women are valued for their contributions.”
The report continued, “The current disparate treatment of women unacceptably excludes women from a fundamental civic obligation and reinforces gender stereotypes about the role of women, undermining national security.”
The commission argued that any future draft would supply the military with more than just combat troops and that a modern military includes “intelligence and communication specialists, linguists, logisticians, medical personnel, drone or cyber operators” and more.
The report also noted that women in uniform experienced combat in Afghanistan and Iraq where insurgencies used roadside bombs, even if they were not in combat roles.
The group called including women “a necessary — and overdue — step” and that this will send a signal that in a time of true crisis, women, and not just men, will be expected to serve.
“The next time America must turn to a draft, it will need to include everyone who is capable and qualified,” the report concludes. “It would be harmful to the nation’s security to leave out the skills and talents of half of the U.S. population.”
Among those on the commission was Debra Wada, a former assistant secretary of the Army. She told The New York Times that women bring “a whole host of different perspectives, different experiences.”
“If the threat is to our very existence,” she said, “wouldn’t you want women as part of that group?”
The change in selective service is tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act making its way through the Senate. It has passed a Senate committee and received the support of more than half the Republicans on that panel. The House is working on its own version and is expected to include the same change in the draft.
A bill must be passed, but plenty of negotiation remains. A similar change was in the 2016 version but was cut out of the final draft.
If the measure passes with this change, women ages 18 to 25 would have to register for selective service one year after its enactment.