- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat and will begin allowing female service members to hold any jobs for which they qualify, including special operations, over the next few years, according to a memo from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the secretary of defense.

“The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey says in the memo, dated Jan. 9. The Washington Times obtained a copy of the memo.

“The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously join me in proposing that we move forward with the full intent to integrate women into occupational fields to the maximum extent possible,” Gen. Dempsey wrote. “To implement these initiatives successfully and without sacrificing our war-fighting capability or the trust of the American people, we need time to get it right.”

Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, said his service will open to women its seven career fields that currently are closed to them — all in special operations.

“We fully support the removal of the exclusion. We just need to move forward,” Gen. Welsh told The Times. “We’ve got to figure out how to get it done, and if there is some career field where it ends up being impossible for reasons that everybody can understand, then we can request an exemption.”

The Pentagon has long banned women from serving in the infantry, special operations forces and other units that would put them in direct combat situations.

Advocates for placing women in combat roles have said female service members have proved themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Critics have argued that women on average are not physically built for ground combat and that placing them in combat would hurt cohesion in all-male units.

In February, the Defense Department partially lifted the ban to allow women to serve in units below the brigade level and closer to potential battlefields. As a result, 14,325 positions — mostly in the Army — were opened to females.

The Dempsey memo calling for the full lifting of the ban was released after four women filed a lawsuit in November against the Defense Department, saying the ban is unconstitutional and has hurt their military careers. Female troops account for about 14.5 percent of the 1.4 million-member active-duty force.

Titled “Women in the Service Implementation Plan,” the Dempsey memo outlines the steps the armed services intend to take to put women in combat jobs:

• The services will expand the number of units and the number of women assigned to those units that were opened to them last year, and provide periodic progress reports each quarter beginning in the third quarter of fiscal 2013.

• The services will “develop, review and validate” job standards, and gender-neutral job standards will be used no later than September.

• The services and U.S. Special Operations Command will “proceed in a deliberate, measured and responsible way” to assign women to jobs that are closed to them as physical standards and operational assessments are met. The services and SOCOM must complete all studies by the first quarter of 2016.

• The Navy will continue to assign women to ships as changes to allow female privacy and berthing, female leadership assignments and ship schedules permit.

However, the memo also states: “If we find that the assignment of women to a specific position or occupational specialty is in conflict with our stated principles, we will request an exception to the policy.”

Strong reactions

The policy change evoked a variety of reactions from Capitol Hill.

Sen. Carl M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the lifting of the ban.

“I support it,” Mr. Levin said. “It reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed skepticism about the change.

“The focus of our military needs to be maximizing combat effectiveness,” Mr. Hunter said. “The question here is whether this change will actually make our military better at operating in combat and killing the enemy, since that will be their job, too.

“What needs to be explained is how this decision, when all is said and done, increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes — which is what this looks like. The idea that every combat mission and future conflict will mirror Iraq and Afghanistan is extremely naive and shortsighted,” he said.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat and a former Army lieutenant who served in Iraq, hailed the Pentagon’s move.

“Today is a historic day for not only women currently serving in our armed forces, but for all of the women who have selflessly put their lives on the line in theaters of war throughout our nation’s history,” Ms. Gabbard said. “This decision by the Department of Defense is an overdue yet welcome change, which I strongly support.”

Advocacy groups also assessed the Pentagon’s change.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said the move is premature and lacks empirical justification.

“Secretary Panetta on his way out the door is imposing huge burdens on the infantry that will affect morale and readiness,” Mrs. Donnelly said. “Thirty years of research, reports and studies … indicate that this is not a good idea. It will indeed complicate life in the infantry and make life more dangerous.”

But Ariel Migdal, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the women who have sued the Pentagon, said the ban was constraining commanders in the field and limiting the military’s ability to recruit and retain the most qualified women.

“Does this mean of the 238,000 positions that are now closed to women — will they be able to compete for those?” Ms. Migdal said.

Guiding principles

Two years ago, Congress ordered a review of the Pentagon’s policies on women in combat, spurred by reports of heroism by female troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — wars that often featured no clearly defined front lines.

Of the more than 8,000 U.S. military personnel who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, at least 152 are women.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a group of civilians and active-duty and retired military members, recommended to President Obama in 2011 that he remove all job barriers for women.

The Dempsey memo states that the Pentagon’s “guiding principles” in the policy change are:

• Ensuring the success of U.S. troops by “preserving unit readiness, cohesion and morale.”

• Ensuring all service members are “given the opportunity to succeed and are set up for success with viable career paths.”

• Retaining the trust of the American people by “promoting policies that maintain the best quality and most qualified people.”

• Certifying performance standards, both physical and mental, for all military jobs.

• Ensuring that enough female leaders “are assigned to commands at the point of introduction to ensure success in the long run.”

The memo notes that the Defense Department may need to adjust its recruitments and assignments.

“This deliberate approach to reducing gender-based barriers to women’s service will provide the time necessary to institutionalize these important changes and to integrate women into occupational fields in a climate where they can succeed and flourish. Ultimately, we will ensure the success of our military forces and maintain the trust of the American people,” the memo states.

• Kristina Wong can be reached at kwong@washingtontimes.com.

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