The U.S. Military Academy’s students are about 20 percent women. But the gender mix was different for the top six students in the Class of 2018: All of them were women.

That little-noticed but remarkable fact is just one more sign of the positive impact that women are having on the U.S. military as their roles and opportunities expand. Determined women in uniform have been busy breaking barriers, including some of the toughest ones. Fifteen women have graduated from the Army’s most physically challenging and elite training, the Ranger School, and two women graduated from the Marine Corps’ arduous Infantry Officers Course. In another recent first, a woman is now in command of a Marine infantry unit.

Yet when speaking at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seemed to hedge his support for the Defense Department’s full-integration policy for women in combat roles. The “close-quarters fight being what it is,” he said, “is it a strength or a weakness to have women in that circumstance?”

I know something about the military’s full-integration policy. More than five years ago, I drafted it for my boss, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He wanted to end the second-class-citizen treatment of brave women willing to fight and die for their country; all jobs in all units, including combat jobs, would be opened to women.

Now the current defense secretary appears to be undercutting that policy (“This is a policy that I inherited,” Mattis said) by casting doubt on women’s ability to fight in combat units. It was more than a little ironic that he was speaking at VMI, given that the school’s all-male policy was ended by a Supreme Court decision in 1996. Mattis’ answer to a question from a cadet revealed a basic misunderstanding: The gender integration policy ensures that anyone in a combat job meets the standards required.

His comments also suggested a paternalistic bias against women in combat roles: “How did the infantry get its name? Infant soldier. Young soldier. Very young soldier. They’re cocky, they’re rambunctious, they’re necessarily macho.” That didn’t sound like the man who, at his confirmation hearing in January 2017,said he had “no plan to oppose women in any aspect” of the military, and that the “standards are the standards, and when people meet the standards, then that is the end of the discussion on that.”

Mattis acknowledged at VMI that “our natural inclination” is to “have this open to all,” but he added that “we cannot do something that militarily doesn’t make sense.” More data are needed, he said: “There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few.”

The number of women working their way into combat positions is indeed small, but they continue to increase even as women face obstacles to entering them. These include a “leaders first” policy, flowing from “guiding principles” issued by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey in 2013 when the full-integration policy was announced. “Leaders first” means that Army women can serve in combat units only if two female officers have been assigned at the battalion level. The intention was good, but the effect was detrimental to female soldiers’ advancement.

The entire gender integration plan was designed by the military to carefully and methodically “grow” women into positions rather than speed integration at all levels — it was expected to take 20 or more years to complete. Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst and former Department of Homeland Security official in the Obama administration, noted in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe in August that there are 80 women in the Marine Corps who hold “previously combat-excluded roles. The Army has fared better, with 740 women now in jobs they once were not allowed to hold. It is a slow process.”

Someone at the Pentagon should remind Mattis that 2018 is the “Year of the Woman” and that a record number of female veterans are running for Congress. Among them is M.J. Hegar, a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas. As an Air National Guard helicopter pilot, Hegar was shot down in Afghanistan in 2009 and returned enemy fire, defending her crew and patients; she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for her heroism.

Hegar was also among a group of female veterans who pressed the Defense Department to lift the combat exclusion rule in 2013 and introduce the full gender integration policy. Given Mattis’ recent comments, the fight continues. For women willing to die in the defense of their country, this is one battle that needs to end for good.

Monica Medina is an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is a board member of the Service Women’s Action Network, which is suing the U.S. government over limits on women in combat roles. She wrote this for the Washington Post.