Military plans to open more combat jobs to women by 2016

The Washington PostJune 18, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- By 2016, women could be permitted to train for most combat roles, including infantry and artillery positions, under detailed plans released by the Pentagon on Tuesday describing how to integrate female troops throughout the armed forces.

But military leaders made clear that they will move cautiously as they lift remaining barriers to women in combat and indicated that, after further review, some jobs will probably remain open only to men.

All told, the Defense Department is re-examining physical standards and other requirements for about 240,000 military positions -- about one-fifth of the regular active-duty force -- that have been off-limits to women.

"We are taking a very deliberate, very measured and very responsible approach to this," said Col. Jon Aytes, head of the military policy branch for the Marine Corps. He added that the Corps wanted to ensure that "we don't set our female Marines up for failure by not adequately preparing them."

In January, after years of debate and legal challenges, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon would lift its long-standing combat ban for women. The decision was fueled in part by the recognition that women played a critical role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where commanders stretched rules to allow them to bear arms and support combat units.

The biggest changes will come in the Army and Marine Corps, where positions in infantry, artillery and armored units could open to women if they pass "gender-neutral" physical tests and other requirements.

Officials of both services said they are reexamining those tests, but that men and women will be held to the same standards. Tank gunners, for example, will need to prove that they can lift and spin a 55-pound shell, regardless of gender.

"This isn't to set up anybody for failure," said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel. "But the worst thing we could do is change that standard for that position just to accommodate women."

Military leaders will have to justify any jobs that they want to keep closed to women by 2016 and receive the approval of the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

One big question mark is to what degree women will be allowed to join elite Special Operations units, such as the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.

On Tuesday, Army Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, the director of force management and development for the Special Operations Command, said it was unclear whether women would be allowed to become commandos. "We haven't made any decisions whatsoever," he said. "I can assure you, we are not predisposed to any particular course of action."

Sacolick said he had "genuine concerns" about whether it made sense to integrate small, elite commando teams that often serve in remote locations under hardship. His primary question, he said, was not whether women had enough physical strength, but rather if men would accept them and if "cultural, social, behavioral issues" could be overcome.

He said the Special Operations Command would survey its forces to get a better idea of their feelings about working in close proximity with women. "We've got a lot invested in them, and they've got to embrace it," he said.

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