As military integrates combat jobs, a new push to position women as leaders

U.S. Army photo

Women in the U.S. military will step into a host of new combat and command roles in coming months. Outside advocates want them to be leaders in the veteran’s community, too.

Next week, officials from the Service Women’s Action Network will host a Washington, D.C., forum on integration of combat jobs and connected cultural changes.

The event is expected to bring together several dozen thought leaders and would-be leaders to discuss the problematic issues of discrimination, bias and unfair expectations, but also the opportunities and resources available to women in the services.

It’s the latest event in SWAN’s Leadership Institute program, an ongoing effort to “provide the knowledge and tools (military women) need to reach their personal and professional goals and to increase their participation at the top levels of local and national organizations.”

Judy Patterson, CEO of the group, said the program is designed to fill a void among military women, many who still struggle to define their roles as veterans despite their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What we hear from our members is that they still don’t feel like they have a community where they belong,” she said. “They don’t really know where to turn.

“We’re hoping that because we’re by women, for women, they’ll be more willing to look at what we’re providing.”

Multiple veterans groups have made women’s issues a major focus in recent years, pushing for expanded medical services within the Department of Veterans Affairs and targeted resources to ease their reintegration to civilian society.

Patterson praised that work, but said it hasn’t necessarily translated into more female leaders in the veteran’s community.

And Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s decision last month to open all combat jobs to women by late spring has put more attention — and pressure — on those female veterans.

The Leadership Institute has been holding weeklong sessions with women veterans on health care resources, post-deployment reintegration and advocacy training in an effort to find individuals to step into those roles.

In coming months, the program will mix in one-day sessions on policy development, sexual assault response, community engagement and nonprofit management.

“We see this as the decade of service women,” Patterson said. “So many of them still don’t self-identify as veterans, feel a lack of respect and support. So part of this is a public education and a public awareness campaign.”

More information about the program is available on SWAN’s website at