First Lady Jill Biden said Monday that she remembers a trip she took about a decade ago to Camp Pendleton, California, where she met a group of Marines.

The Marines worked in Female Engagement Teams, Biden told a crowd at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, which were tasked with communicating with women in Afghanistan who, due to local belief systems, could not engage with male troops. Although the jobs were not technically considered combat roles, such frontline contributions were vital in keeping troops safe, Biden said.

“They train to forge connections with women in Afghanistan, and their conversations to make everyone safer, Afghan and American troops,” Biden said. “Their bravery has stayed with me all these years, not only going to face danger, but to create their own path.”

Biden and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) addressed more than 300 women service members gathered at Monday’s event, which coincided with the 75th anniversary of President Harry Truman’s signing of the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act.

Signed into law on June 12, 1948, the legislation allowed women to serve in the military on a permanent basis, though thousands had served in temporary roles prior to the new policy.

Since the legislation was signed into law, more than 3 million women have served in the armed forces. In 2021, the Pentagon reported that women made up 17.3% and 21.4% of active-duty and National Guard forces, respectively. That totals amounts to more than 400,000 women currently in the ranks.

“[Women in the military] contribute immensely to the strength, resiliency and success of our military throughout our nation’s history,” Collins said. “American women have stood strong for freedom. ... There’s the story of citizens answering the call of duty, defending our freedoms and extending the blessings of freedom to others around the world.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a recent event at the Pentagon that the military must “wipe out the cancer of harassment” from its ranks. He also emphasized the need to make service more adaptable for troops — both male and female — to raise families.

“The United States military needs women,” Austin said at the event. “Our military is the best fighting force in human history. And to keep it that way, we need the best warfighters in every domain of potential conflict. And the only way to make that happen is by drawing on the talents of all of our people, and not just men, who happen to represent less than half of the U.S. population.”

During Monday’s event, Biden and Collins awarded former Brig. Gen. Wilma Vought, previously one of the highest ranking uniformed women in the Pentagon, the Senator Margaret Chase Smith Leadership Excellence Award.

Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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