Pentagon tears down final barrier for women in combat

Friday - 1/25/2013, 5:15am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Pentagon eliminated the last big policy barrier keeping female service members from serving in the occupation of their choice Thursday. But the changes won't be immediate, and implementing them will take a lot of careful study by the military services.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey said the decision was a policy recognition of what's been actually happening in reality over more than 10 years of war: Women have been serving on the front lines, fighting and dying with their male counterparts, even if they've been excluded from serving in certain jobs

Secretary Leon Panetta, Department of Defense

"Let me be clear: We're not talking about reducing qualifications. But if they can meet the qualifications for the job, they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation," Panetta said.

Dempsey said he and the chiefs of the military services came to the conclusion that it was time to change the calculus the military previously has used when it comes to gender. Instead of asking why women should be allowed to serve in certain positions, the military services now will have to prove that they shouldn't.

"It reverses the paradigm," he said. "It's going to take a lot of careful analysis, but if we're going to keep one closed [to women], we're going to have to explain why.

Fundamentally, we will always have to be the most ready force we can possibly be. I don't know how it's all going to sort out. But I'm eager to begin the journey."

No more restricted positions

The policy Dempsey and Panetta signed Thursday undoes a 1994 Pentagon decree that banned women from positions "direct ground combat." On paper, 238,000 positions that until now were explicitly restricted to men are now open to women.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

But the changes will not be immediate. The military services have until May to deliver implementation plans to the Panetta and Dempsey, and they have until 2016 to ask the Pentagon for exemptions to the policy for certain jobs.

They'll have to justify those exemptions, however, and create training and physical fitness standards that pertain directly to jobs rather than gender.

Dempsey said he and the military branch chiefs believe firmly that there are women who will meet even the toughest standards, such as those required by the military's special operations components.

"But the other part of the equation is that in order to account for their success, we've got to have enough of them so that they have mentors and leaders above them," he said. "You wouldn't want to take one woman who meets the standard and put her in a particular unit. Where's her ability to have upward mobility and compete for command if she's one of one? So, we have to work both the standards and the critical mass in order to make this work. But that's our commitment."

Because of the need to make sure there are cadres of female service members in the newly-opened career fields, the military services probably won't say yes to every woman who wants to serve in one of the previously-excluded combat positions, at least not right away.

"Just because the recruiting base can bring them in one at a time doesn't mean that's the way to bring them in," said Gen. Robert Cone, the commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. "The models say you need to bring them in in groups of at least four and keep them together. You have to have other women role models in the organization."

Test run showed good results

But finding those role models inside today's Army shouldn't be too hard a task, Cone said. It may simply be a matter of taking battle-hardened female soldiers who've already been on the front lines and reassigning them into roles that were technically off-limits for them until now.

"It's not like when West Point opened to women, where we had to start at the bottom up and grow from there. This is different," he said. "You can take a sergeant who's a truck mechanic who already is a fantastic non-commissioned officer, and give her a different skill set. Then she can be a great role model for a new private entering the Army."

Gen. Robert Cone, commander, Army's Training and Doctrine Command

Last year, the Army began introducing women into previously-excluded jobs on a trial basis. Cone said the results were overwhelmingly positive, but that Army surveys paint a clear picture: soldiers don't want the end of the combat exclusion policy to lower their training standards. And similarly, women who'd like to serve in combat jobs don't want the standards to be lowered just for them.

But creating new, common standards that apply to both women and men may actually raise the bar, he said.

"We probably have men right now who are not carrying their share of the weight right now," Cone said. "This is an opportunity in terms of talent management. We need to get the right people into the right places. We have to be able to tell soldiers, 'Look, we're not making things up so that you can't get in here.' We expect to be challenged on this."

Standards according to mission, not gender

The Pentagon's guiding principles say the baselines can't be drawn so narrowly that they're not simply a backdoor way to exclude women. Cone said the Army will create the standards according to mission, not according to gender.

Dempsey said the joint chiefs agreed unanimously to move forward with the abolition of the combat exclusion policy. Like Cone, he thinks it will improve the military as a whole, not just the career prospects of female service members.

"I graduated from West Point in 1974. It was an all-male institution then. I went back to teach at West Point in 1984, and by then it had become better in almost every way," he said. "Secondly, we've had this ongoing issue with sexual assault and sexual harassment. I believe it's because we've had separate classes of military personnel. It's far more complicated than that, but when you have one part of your workforce that's designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that led to that environment. I think the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally."

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