Defense Secretary Says US Opens All Military Combat Roles to Women

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will open all combat positions to women, without exception, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday in a decision that ended a decades-long debate but did not quell disagreement with this decision.

“This means that, as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they previously could not,” Carter said.

The decision will make available the 10% of positions still closed to women, or nearly 220,000, in infantry, reconnaissance and special operations units.

At a press conference at the Pentagon, Mr. Carter spelled out the implications of his landmark decision, which will begin to take effect in 30 days: “They will be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry in fight. They will be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps Infantry, Air Force Paratroopers, and anything previously only for men.

The decision follows a three-year review by each branch of the armed forces to assess how women could be integrated into the military.

The Marine Corps had requested exceptions in certain areas, including infantry. But Mr Carter said on Thursday he had refused to grant them.

U.S. Army Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, the first two women in history to graduate from Ranger School, discussed the milestone and challenges at a press conference at Fort Benning, Georgia. Photo: AP

“The important factor in my decision was to have access to any Americans who could add strength to the joint force,” Carter said, noting that the decision was based on empirical analysis of studies.

Mr. Carter’s decision drew a mixture of approval, concern and opposition.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), a Marine Corps Reserve major who has served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, said in an interview that Carter made “the wrong decision.”

“This is a unilateral decision by the Secretary of Defense for purely political reasons,” Mr Hunter said.

Others accepted the move.

“It will strengthen our armed forces, and it builds on a history of honorable and courageous service by women in the military,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D., NY), member of the United Nations Armed Services Committee. Senate.

The Obama administration has backed other moves to integrate the military, including Congress’s 2010 repeal of the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell law” that banned gay service members from serving openly. . The White House also supports allowing transgender service members to serve openly.

“As Commander-in-Chief, I know this change, like others before it, will make our military even stronger again,” President Barack Obama said in a statement Thursday.

Supporters of women in combat said the formal removal of the bans recognized the contributions women had made to the military for some time. More than 200 women have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to military data.

Judy Patterson, CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network, hailed Mr Carter’s “momentous decision”.

“We salute his leadership on this issue and look forward to working with him and the service branches to create full combat integration in 2016,” she said.

In a joint statement, Republican leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees expressed skepticism and promised vigorous oversight of the implementation of Mr. Carter’s order.

There were indications Thursday that Mr. Carter’s decision was not embraced by the entire military.

Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the military, did not appear alongside Mr Carter when the Secretary of Defense announced his decision on Thursday.

Before becoming chairman of the joint chiefs, General Dunford was the commandant of the Marine Corps and in September requested an exception to place women in certain Navy roles.

General Dunford’s view was informed by a controversial Marine Corps study which found that mixed-gender units are less effective in combat and more likely to suffer casualties than traditional all-male units.

However, General Dunford’s supervisor at the time, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, had already publicly expressed support for opening all jobs to women, thus quashing General Dunford’s request for a partial exception.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command did not request exceptions.

“My responsibility is to ensure that his decision is properly implemented,” Gen Dunford said in a statement on Thursday. “Moving forward, my goal is to lead the full integration of women in a way that maintains our joint combat capability, ensures the health and well-being of our people, and optimizes how we leverage talent within the Joint Force.”

In announcing his decision, Mr. Carter stressed that military personnel, including women, must meet the standards for all jobs. He outlined seven principles to guide military postings in integrated service branches.

Equal opportunity, he said, will not mean equal participation, adding that the military recognizes the differences in physical abilities between women and men.

Carter said the Pentagon will pay close attention to the integration process and that it will not come at the expense of “combat effectiveness,” which he said remains the Department of Defense’s top priority.

Women in the military, like their male counterparts, will be assigned to combat roles as needed. Mr Carter said his decision could allow women to serve in special operations teams deployed to Iraq and Syria in the fight against Islamic State.

Women officially began serving in the military during World War I, as nurses and support personnel. They also served in non-combat roles during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Military service academies opened for women in 1975.

Congress authorized women to fly in combat missions and serve on combat ships in the early 1990s. Women became more integrated into the military during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many experienced fighting, although they have been officially excluded from combat positions.

Barriers to women serving in combat roles have been reduced in recent years. The first two female soldiers graduated from Army Ranger School this summer, but were barred from joining the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, a special operations force focused on the fight. With Mr. Carter’s announcement, they will be eligible to join the regiment next year.

“People have to qualify for positions, positions have to be open,” Carter said. “There are a lot of things to do, but these positions will now be open to them.”

Mr Carter’s decision is also likely to spark debate over women’s participation in the Selective Service System, known as the Draft, which requires all men to register at the age of 18.

Sen. John McCain (R., Arizona), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said their panels would consider the draft question.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com and Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com

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