Why Joe Biden Needs to Nominate Women to Lead VA and the Defense Department

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President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris
President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, speaks at The Queen theater, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Andrew Vernon serves as director at Powell Strategies, LLC, and is president of Andrew Vernon & Associates, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit for Veterans. A Veteran of the Army, he is also a former career employee at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Women now serve at every echelon of the military, from administrative positions to the infantry and special operations. Their contributions help our military reach the peak of readiness, in preparation for the unknown. As women become a greater proportion of the uniformed military ranks and the Veteran population, they deserve strong voices in leadership advocating for them and creating equitable policies.

The public has witnessed over and over again how women in the military have been put in uncomfortable positions, and male service members have not been punished to the full extent they should be for their unacceptable actions. The collateral damage is seen in military sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.

Beyond the impact to survivors, these violations have caused long-term problems in the military.

Women interested in serving may now think twice before enlisting. We haven't done enough to assure women that they will be protected and supported by their military leaders and peers. Thus, there is no better time for a woman to lead the Department of Defense; it would promote a much-needed culture change.

With men making up the majority of the military, women sometimes feel the burden of being less supported. They feel the need to work harder to be accepted. Their feelings and emotions may not be fully understood when going through difficult situations. This makes their career in service more challenging to navigate.

A female leader could help create better, more equal standards for physical training and individual performance. She could have insights on new, sensible processes, procedures and policies related to women in the service. A thorough review of the military justice system and protocols to ensure those who commit crimes are punished could become more realistic. Providing additional emotional and peer-support resources to women in the military, both at home and overseas is critical to their wellbeing. Having a woman leader could help increase overall respect for women serving across government, and in the private sector. And, as DoD is the largest government agency, it would reinforce the message that women are capable of leading anywhere -- as Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris also illustrates.

The Department of Veterans Affairs would also benefit from having a woman at the helm. As women transition into civilian life, they face a VA that is making progress on expanding women's medical care, services and benefits. More needs to be done, and a woman would be uniquely positioned to improve on these efforts. Women need someone who can fight for them, as an advocate, to help them obtain healthcare services and benefits. A woman in the top position could also help ensure accountability for those who have experienced military sexual trauma, mental health conditions and other negative impacts while serving in the military.

A woman in leadership might effectively increase enrollment for women Veterans, something VA has been trying to do for decades, and make clear, once and for all, that the VA does not belong just to male Veterans. For years, the VA's motto has been "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan." In 1865, Abraham Lincoln used these words during his second inaugural address. However, if he were alive today, do we think he would be opposed to changing the motto to reflect the women who have borne the battle too?

Only 1% of Americans, or 1.3 million, currently serve on active duty. When discharged from military service, women transition into civilian life with millions of other Veterans who served. I trust that, with women leading the Departments of Defense and VA, not only would we see a significant cultural change, but also the approval of past generations of those who have borne the battle well.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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