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Panel recommends ways to improve military diversity

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- A commission created to improve diversity among military leaders has issued 20 recommendations its members say will make the military better reflect the composition of the United States in its ranks.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, created as part of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, issued the findings of its 18-month research March 7, with recommendations for how Defense Department oofficials can improve the promotion of women and minorities at a time when the nation is expected to become increasingly diverse.

"The armed forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as demographically diverse as the nation they serve," the report says.

The disparity between the numbers of racial and ethnic minorities in the military and their leaders "will become starkly obvious without the successful recruitment, promotion and retention of racial/ethnic minorities among the enlisted force," the report says. "Without sustained attention, this problem will only become more acute as the ... makeup of the United States continues to change."

The commission's chairman, retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles, said that while the military is free of the institutional biases of decades past, it retains the appearance of bias because so few women and minorities occupy senior positions.

"There are no institutional biases in the United States military today, ... and probably have not been for many, many years," General Lyles said. "But there are some people who think there are, because when you look statistically at the demographics in the United States, and you look at the demographics in the military, then you look at the senior leadership positions, both in officer and senior enlisted ranks, to some it may give the appearance that there are biases that prevented women and minorities from achieving those senior ranks."

The commission found four reasons for low representation of women and minorities in senior military positions:

-- Low representation of women and minorities in initial officer accessions;

-- Lower representation of women and minority officers in career fields associated with higher officer rank;

-- Lower retention of midlevel female service members; and

-- Lower rates of advancement among female and minority officers.

"Our recommendations were to ensure we remove any potential barriers that exist today; that we make recommendations that enhance the culture, career progression and recruiting (of women and minorities); and that we grow the pool of eligible candidates," General Lyles said.

The commission recommends that the services consider commitment to diversity in officer promotions and require diversity leadership education and training at all levels.

To further promote diversity, the services must increase their pool of eligible recruits and officer candidates, the report says. Pentagon statistics show that three out of four Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are not eligible to enlist because of low education or test scores, past criminal history or because they can't meet health and fitness requirements.

"This is a national security issue requiring the attention and collected effort of top public officials," the commission's report says.

The commission also recommended a new, broader definition of "diversity" that would add backgrounds and skills largely missing from today's military, such as recruiting people from more varied regions and cultural backgrounds and with foreign-language skills and higher math, science and technological abilities.

"Diversity is all the different characteristics and attributes of individuals that are consistent with Department of Defense core values, integral to overall readiness and mission accomplishment and reflective of the nation we serve," the report says.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., the commission's vice chair, said the military's needs in recruiting and retaining the right people must start much earlier than at the end of high school.

"Unless we start at the pre-kindergarten level, we're never going to increase how many kids are graduating and going to college," said General Becton , a former college president and superintendent of Washington, D.C., public schools. Issues such as full-day kindergarten, summer school and lengthening the hours American children spend in school all have an impact on the military, he said.

Such steps are important, General Becton said, to ensure that potential recruits can meet military standards. Nothing the commission has recommended calls for lowering standards, he added.

"There are no efforts whatsoever to decrease standards," he said. "The standards are proven, and we want people to come up to the standards."

The commission also recommended that the Pentagon lift its ban on assigning women to ground combat units below the brigade level, citing the policy as a barrier to women attaining the military's most-senior ranks.

Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said Defense Department officials will evaluate the panel's recommendations as part of an ongoing review of diversity policies.

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