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Gen. Dempsey said job performance for men and women will be assessed by the same standards. This means that, if a certain standard is to be lowered, it will be reduced for men and for women.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who flew scores of fighter combat missions over Vietnam, told The Times: “That is most worrisome, because he is saying to the young officers and commanders, ‘We are going to challenge your standards, which means your job and career are on the line if you push back on me.’”

John E. Hamilton, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a former Marine rifleman, issued a statement that served as a warning to military leaders not to tinker too much with combat qualifications.

“We fully recognize that not everyone volunteers for the combat arms career fields, but the VFW wishes all who apply much success in meeting the arduous physical and demanding performance standards,” said Mr. Hamilton, a triple Purple Heart recipient for his service in Vietnam. “Societal norms may have changed, but the mission and environment in which our ground forces operate have not.”

The top brass have weighed in with statements that seem at odds with Gen. Dempsey’s flexible approach.

Navy Adm. William McRaven, a SEAL who heads U.S. Special Operations Command, welcomed women to join, but he signaled that he is not interested in lowering the bar for what some consider the most physically daunting tasks in the military.

“The one thing we want to make sure we maintain is our standards,” Adm. McRaven said at a Jan. 29 conference. “We haven’t had ‘gender standards.’ We had no female population to have to worry about gender. We had an all-male population so that was the standard.”

Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, told USA Today after the Pentagon announcement last month: “We can’t afford to lower standards. We can’t make adjustments on what’s required on the battlefield.”

The Corps was the first to open a closed course to women while Mr. Panetta was planning the ban’s removal. It welcomed two female Marine volunteers to the Infantry Officer Course. Neither was able to complete the training. Two other female volunteers are set to try this spring.

Special-operations training

Mr. Panetta has pledged no reduction in competence.

“If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation,” he said last month.

Today, that is not the case. At a bare minimum, a female soldier must be able to do 13 pushups and 43 situps to graduate from boot camp. A male infantry school soldier must do 42 pushups and 53 situps, both within two minutes.

Gen. Dempsey, besides broaching the idea of lowering the bar, has suggested a two-tiered system of standards — not based on gender, but on the type of land war being fought.

Fighting a great land battle, compared with conducting a counterinsurgency such as the mission in Afghanistan, requires a “very different environment that requires a different level of physical stamina,” the Army general said.

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