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Ashton Carter: Defense Secretary. Scholar. Feminist.

Mika Brzezinski remembers the former defense secretary, who unexpectedly passed away on Monday, and how he changed the face of the U.S. military and leveled the playing field for all Americans.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter talks to multinational troops at the Irbil International Airport on July 24, 2015, in Irbil, Iraq.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter talks to multinational troops at the Irbil International Airport on July 24, 2015, in Irbil, Iraq.Carolyn Kaster / Getty Images file

Ashton Carter, who unexpectedly died on Monday at the age of 68, is being remembered as a dedicated public servant and transformative defense secretary. He served as America’s Secretary of Defense the Obama Administration and helped execute the campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He also proved to be a champion of equality inside the Pentagon and across the world.

Throughout U.S. military history, women were locked out of combat roles reserved for men. That all changed in December 2015 when Carter made the landmark announcement that all occupations and positions, without exemption, would be opened to female service members.

“They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat," Carter said during a Pentagon press conference. "They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men."

At the time, nearly 220,000 positions, or about 10 percent of the armed forces, were still closed to women — even after an earlier move in 2013 to open more roles.

“We are a joint force, and I have decided to make a decision which applies to the entire force,” said Carter.

In 2016, Carter also lifted the ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military. At the time he said the move, which also prevented service members from being discharged or denied re-enlistment based on their gender, was “a matter of principle." Secretary Carter believed that all patriotic Americans who were qualified and wanted to serve their country should be afforded that opportunity.

Because of Carter, every American moved by the calling of defending this great land by undertaking one of the most courageous responsibilities of citizenship can now do so.

I had the privilege of knowing Carter, not just as a guest on “Morning Joe,” but as a friend. My father, Zbigniew Brzezinski – who was national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter -- had great respect for him as an intellectual force, a defense secretary and a public servant.

Carter shared with my dad a clear-eyed, sober-minded view of the world and of what the United States needed to do to protect our freedom both at home and abroad.

My husband and "Morning Joe" co-host, Joe Scarborough, and I were blessed to know Carter and his wife Stephanie, and loved seeing them whether at the Pentagon, 30 Rock, or Fenway Park. Stephanie and the Carter family will remain in our prayers.

Carter will be remembered for changing the face of the U.S. military – and leveling the playing field for all Americans. And we are all better and stronger for it.