Women in the military should be recognized for their inherent roles as "protectors" to boost their advancement in the ranks and enhance their recruitment and retention, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Tuesday.
"If I asked everyone in this room to think, just close your eyes for a second and think about the most protective person you know in your life, someone who would do anything to keep you safe -- half the people in this room are thinking about their moms," she said.
"We are the protectors," Wilson said in making the case for valuing women's contribution to the military's mission.
"That's what the military does. We serve to protect the rest of you, and that's a very natural place for a woman to be," she said in testimony with the two other service secretaries at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the budget.
Wilson’s comments were similar to those made January during a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where she gave a keynote address about future service members.
Wilson, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982 in the third class to accept women, was responding to questions from Rep. Susan Davis, D-California, on her concerns about the recruitment and retention of women in the military.
"More women than men, as we know, leave the military at various career points, so concerns persist that this attrition will result in a disproportionate impact to mission readiness if left unresolved," Davis said.
Wilson said there is a perception problem that has to be addressed in the way the military appeals to young women.
"We're, I think, trying to change a little bit the way we talk and think about who the protectors are in this country, because I think sometimes the way in which we talk about the services may appeal more to boys than to girls," she said. "And that's important, the way we talk about these things."
Wilson's comments were enthusiastically endorsed by other members of the committee.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, an Army veteran, noted the hush in the room as Wilson spoke: "Your words are reverberating here," he said.
Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Mississippi, an Iraq veteran and a brigadier general in the Army National Guard, said Wilson may have been off in her estimate that half the people in the committee room think of women as protectors.
"I think it was well said, but I think the numbers were too low," Kelly said. He said 90 percent would see women as protectors.
Wilson said the Air Force is looking at ways to allow service members to leave the military to start a family or pursue a degree and return without having their careers sidelined.
Army Secretary Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, who also testified, said they are pursuing similar opportunities for their services.
"Going forward, rest assured the Navy is really looking at this," Spencer said. "It's game on because all three of us fish from the same [recruitment] pool, and that pool is getting smaller and smaller both by qualification and by demographic size.
"We are going to be competing with the private sector," he said. "As the economy increases, we're going to see more competition there. We're going to use every single tool available to us."
Esper noted that all military occupational specialties, including combat billets, were opened to women in 2016. "They are doing very well," he said.
"I've had the chance to visit with them, the units [women are] in in both at the National Training Center and at Fort Bragg," Esper said, "and at this point, under the Leaders First policy, we have dozens of leaders in these battalion-size units. So a lot of expansion happening there."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.