History Has Been Made

The news just broke: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat. The move will open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions to women, clearing away the daunting career barriers that have been in place since a 1994 rule that prohibited women from being assigned to small ground combat units (of course, thousands of women have been “attached” to such units and the world did not end).

I have covered this issue for more than two decades and wrote about military women’s long slog toward acceptance, most recently here.

No doubt, social conservatives will decry the move as the end of civilization and at least one gadfly will use the announcement to raise funds for her questionable organization. But women are already on the front line and this nation could not go to war without them.

It was true back in 1999, when I shared a leaky, muddy tent in Albania with women warriors during the Kosovo War:

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And it remains true to this day in Afghanistan.

Bravo to the Pentagon for lifting the already irrelevant ban on women in combat.

Where Would You Rather Be?

The never-ending, New Years Eve-spoiling Fiscal Cliff drama still unfolding on Capitol Hill has reminded me why I so disliked my years covering Congress as a reporter for USA TODAY. As many of my friends and former colleagues learned last night, much of their job is standing around. And standing around. And, oh yeah, standing around while our elected representatives dither over what they would — or would not — do about something they should have done long before. In other words, a lot of late nights.

Take this photo that ran in The New York Times back in 2005. It shows Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist briefing the media during the debate on Judge John Roberts’ nomination for chief justice of the Supreme Court. That’s me on the right diligently taking notes. That was a rather calm presser and, unlike those covering the current controversy, I didn’t have to cancel my New Years Eve plans.

Capitol Hill 2005

Now take a look at these photos of me hard at work almost four years ago to the day:

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These were taken outside the prison in Abu Ghraib in Iraq a couple days after New Years 2009. I was there for this story about the transfer of detainees to the government of Iraq.

Yes, I did have to wear heavy body armor to interview a local council member and storekeepers in the market. And I did have to travel in an armored MRAP to get to my appointments. But compared to covering the political battle right now on Capitol Hill, I’ll take a war zone in the Middle East any day.

Another Secretary Rice?

If Republicans get their way, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice won’t be promoted to secretary of State in President Obama’s second term after Hillary Clinton retires. While the brouhaha over Benghazi doesn’t appear to have damaged her, new details about Rice’s relationship with certain African governments when she was an official the Clinton State Department may yet doom her nomination.

The current situation recalls an earlier controversy over another African-American woman named Rice who was slated to become America’s top diplomat after holding a similarly high-level job in the administration. I’m talking, of course, about Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s choice to be secretary of State in his second term.

Democrats opposed elevating the White House national security adviser, citing her role in the invasion of Iraq on the faulty grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons on mass destruction. The Senate went on to confirm Rice 85-13, with the most negative votes cast against a secretary of State nominee since 1825.

All that was behind Rice as she embarked on her first official trip as secretary of State in February 2005. I was on Rice’s plane, covering the historic trip for USA TODAY. It was a whirlwind trip as we raced to 10 European and Middle Eastern capitals in six days: London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Rome, Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg. I filed this report on her reception.

Surely the most memorable moment of the trip — other than a case of food poisoning that laid me low from Germany through Poland and into Turkey — was our stop in Rome. Although I had already been to the Eternal City as a tourist, it was nice to revisit the Pantheon for a private tour with the world’s most powerful diplomat (that’s me on the right listening intently to the docent):

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Afterward, the entire traveling press corps went to a nearby restaurant for a private, off-the-record dinner. Since Rice had already given the reporters on her inaugural trip signed world atlases, the journalists returned the favor by giving the rabid Cleveland Browns fan an autographed football. You can see where I signed just between her fingers:

Rice’s honeymoon wouldn’t last long. By the time I accompanied her overseas on a high-stakes mission in the summer of 2006 as yet another crisis in Lebanon raged, the mood had darkened considerably.