A 70-year-old Defense Department panel focused on women's personnel issues that has advocated for expanded opportunities for female service members must be preserved, say the six female veterans currently serving in Congress.
The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) has been suspended temporarily and its membership dissolved as part of a cost and efficiency review of the Defense Department's 42 advisory committees that began in January.
But six members of Congress, led by Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, say the committee's work is too important for the panel to be dissolved or rolled into the newly formed Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.
“We are the faces of what DACOWITS has meant for women in the military,” wrote the lawmakers. “As women veterans in Congress, we know the value of expanding opportunities within the services for women and the value that, in turn, has brought to our Armed Forces.”
In January, the Pentagon asked for the resignations of the 21 volunteer members of the committee, a group that included eight retired generals and admirals. The move was part of a larger review of all DoD advisory committees in the wake of last-minute appointments by former President Donald Trump to several boards and committees, including the Defense Business Board.
According to a memo obtained by Military.com, the DoD's Manpower and Reserve Affairs office has recommended that the work of DACOWITS be integrated into the new diversity committee, a 20-member group established last August in the wake of racial justice protests over the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a White police officer in Minneapolis.
The lawmakers say, however, that integrating DACOWITS into a larger group would not "provide sufficient resources of focus to achieve the results that are necessary."
“We believe we can tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion without disbanding one of the military's most effective tools to advance women,” they wrote. “It would send the wrong message to every woman currently serving in the military or to those who have worn our nation's uniform and sacrificed.”
Cari Thomas, a retired rear admiral who served nearly four years on the committee, told Military.com last week that she understood DoD's efforts to eliminate duplication or waste but said the "timing did not feel right to me."
She penned a letter to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, urging him to support preserving the committee.
“Losing momentum, expertise and initiative will have a deleterious impact on the critical work that the Committee does in service to the Secretary of Defense and Homeland Security,” she wrote. “This is particularly important because the Marine Corps still does not have a fully gender integrated boot camp, the full opening of all combat positions to women is still under study, and women of color far lag behind their peers to promotions to the highest ranks in the services.”
The biggest change to DACOWITS last occurred in 2002 when the administration of George W. Bush altered the group's charter, reducing the number of committee members as well as funding and staff. The move came nine years after women were allowed to fly combat aircraft and 13 years before the ban on women in ground combat specialties was lifted.
In the past seven decades, DACOWITS has made more than 1,000 recommendations to the Defense Department, 98% of which have been fully or partially implemented, according to the panel’s 2020 report.
Among those were 86 recommendations on women serving in combat roles, first with women serving in combat zones in a supporting role, followed by gradual expansion into training and occupational specialties.
Members of the group have included Helen Hayes, the award-winning actress who was named to the inaugural committee, retired Army Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy and retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter.
Until the committee was asked to resign. retired Air Force Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger served as chair, the highest ranking woman to hold the seat.
In their letter, Luria, Ernst and others said they felt the panel had more work to do to empower military women and ensure they are protected and supported.
“We do not believe its work is complete, as evidenced by so many issues we are currently addressing as a nation and a military,” they wrote.
In addition to Luria and Ernst, the letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was signed by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois,; Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa; Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pennsylvania; and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.
All but Miller-Meeks sit on their chambers' respective Armed Services Committees and, as such, are well positioned for introducing legislation to preserve DACOWITS if the Defense Department pursues its current plans.
Owen Kilmer, a spokesman for Luria, said the letter to Austin was a "first step" in ensuring that DACOWITS remains viable and wouldn't rule out a potential bill that would require DoD to retain the panel.
“We believe this work is substantial enough to require a dedicated organization; including DACOWITS's issues in the charter of a broader organization will not provide sufficient resources or focus to achieve the results that are necessary,” wrote the congressional members.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.