This past few weeks were remarkable for women who, like me, have served their country in uniform. One of a handful of women receiving Army ROTC scholarships in 1979, I became a lawyer and eventually returned to the Pentagon in 2012 to work as a civilian for the Secretary of Defense. I drafted the rule overturning the ban on women from "combat" positions strictly because of their gender. When Defense Secretary Carter finalized the rule with no exceptions last December, I thought women would finally have the opportunity to lead our armed forces. On September 12, the Army announced that almost 200 women would begin training in 2017 for armor and infantry jobs previously closed to them simply because of their gender, and they needed more.
At the Commander in Chief Forum, Hillary Clinton, the first woman with a chance to command our military, firmly and calmly stood her ground under hostile questioning, saying the most important quality in a commander in chief was to be "rock steady," and she was. In his interview at the same forum, her opponent, Donald Trump, who has never served in uniform himself because he could not meet the physical requirements, asserted that he knows more about how to fight wars than our military leadership, which has in his opinion been "reduced to rubble." And he re-affirmed his 2013 tweet implying that because they are victims of sexual assault by servicemen, women do not belong in the military. It was a stunning contrast in fitness for the job.
The next day, another stunning event took place. Elaine Harmon, a volunteer (because she served without pay) World War II combat pilot was at last laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery. She was saluted by a group of equally remarkable women fighter pilots - her granddaughters in arms - because "she defied the chauvinists and misogynists when she flew P-51 Mustangs in World War II," and because she took on Congress in the 1970's to ensure that female pilots like her were able to receive veterans' benefits even though they had only been volunteers. Harmon and her fellow WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) tested new planes and flew planes towing targets to give male pilots in training live fire practice. Of the more than 1100 women pilots like Harmon in WWII, 38 actually lost their lives - decades before our most recent female heroes paid the ultimate sacrifice.
At the service, Major Heather "Lucky" Penney, who as a rookie pilot on September 11, had "scrambled" to respond to the national security crisis on that fateful morning, paid tribute to Harmon. Penney co-piloted the F-16 that was ordered to take down United Flight 93 before it could make strike the U.S. Capitol. That was no easy assignment - her fighter jet had no ammunition - she would have to fly her plane right into flight 93 - a suicide mission to save our country. She flew just as any other trained combat pilot, male or female, would have -- rock steady in the heat of that terrible moment. Lucky for Penney, that was not to be her fate. Flight 93 went down in rural Pennsylvania due to the heroics of the men and women on board, proving that courage knows no gender.
At a time when choosing military service is increasingly rare, our military will not be able to fulfill its mission with only male volunteers. And it is preposterous and even dangerous to our security to think that we can be the greatest fighting force in the world if we excluded half of the talented people who could serve simply because they are women. After so many women have paid the ultimate sacrifice - after women fighter pilots like Elaine Harmon and Heather Penney have proven that they are just as able to serve - it is regrettable that we are still debating whether they should be given that opportunity.
Harmon's long awaited memorial was a painful reminder that all our successful battles to achieve equal opportunity for all in the military can be reversed by the stroke of a pen in the hand of the wrong man. In 2012 with a pen stroke, the Secretary of the Army unilaterally decided to rescind the burial benefits for women like Elaine Harmon. When Harmon died last year at 95, her granddaughter fought to restore those burial rights - enlisting the help of a bi-partisan group of female veterans in Congress, including Representative Martha McSally (R- Ariz.) a veteran combat pilot herself, to pass a law and reverse this "grave" injustice.
As a final salute, female pilots of all generations took turns flying Harmon's burial flag across the country - across D.C. in an F-16 like the one Major Penney scrambled to defend our city on 9/11, on a combat maneuvering mission, and on commercial airliners -- it even went supersonic with a female pilot who took pulled 8.7 Gs with it just for fun. Harmon and her fellow WASPs paved the way for all the determined women combat pilots and for the women combat veterans to come.
Mr. Trump, if you are reading this, know that women veterans will fight hard to defend our right to defend this country. We are a force to be reckoned with. And if you intend to have a strong military, you will need us, just as our country needed Harmon and her fellow WASPs in WWII.