Scrutiny of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel by both Republicans and Democrats grew intense weeks before his nomination for the post of secretary of defense became official Monday.
But mostly absent amid the important questions about Hagel’s record and past statements on Middle East foreign policy and LGBT rights is a close examination of how he would advance the gains made in recent years toward equality for women in the military.
Soldiers and veterans groups cheered Obama’s selection of the Vietnam veteran who would be the first enlisted soldier to serve as defense secretary. But the forces Hagel would lead, made up of about 14 percent women, look starkly different from the military he joined.
Outgoing Secretary Leon Panetta’s two-year tenure has coincided with important milestones for servicewomen. The National Defense Authorization Act passed late in the last Congress included an amendment lifting a ban on insurance coverage for servicewomen seeking abortions in hospitals abroad in cases of rape and incest. As a senator, Hagel several times voted against allowing servicewomen to get abortions in military hospitals.
Panetta ordered policies to crack down on shockingly high rates of sexual abuse — most of it unreported — in the military. He also took steps to allow women to serve closer to the front lines (though he was sued by four servicewomen in November over a policy that keeps women out of combat).
“I hope in his conference hearings he will come clean about what he will do” to implement policies that promote equal opportunity for women, said Anu Bhagwati, the executive director for Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps captain.
Bhagwati’s chief concerns are Hagel’s positions on repeal of the Combat Exclusion Policy, which would allow women to serve in combat, and reproductive rights for servicewomen.
“Is he going to continue recent advancements or reverse them?” she said.
Pro-choice groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL do not oppose Hagel, despite his record on abortion issues. Both said they believe he would fall in line with President Obama’s pro-choice stance.
Hagel, who would be responsible for implementing health care for the military and determining whether it is safe for women to serve in combat, will have many blanks to fill in during his confirmation hearings.
His road to the Pentagon goes through a new Senate with a record number of female members, including Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) who sponsored the NDAA amendment to lift the ban on abortions; Susan Collins (R-Maine) who co-sponsored legislation to prevent military sexual violence; and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a Senate Armed Services Committee member who has introduced bills on combat exclusion. (The Fix wrote earlier this week on why Gillibrand’s support will be key for Hagel’s confirmation chances).
None of the three said they had yet decided on whether to support or oppose Hagel.
If confirmed, Hagel would have the unenviable task of overseeing major cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. But he’ll have the opportunity to make a positive impact by continuing to advance and adequately protect women under his command.
“The kinds of reforms that are needed are not budget-intensive,” Bhagwati said. “There’s a lot he could do that is just common sense reform.”