WASHINGTON – The nation’s top military officials repealed the barrier Thursday that prevented women from serving in combat positions,promising to cultivate an inclusive environment while maintaining the strength of military operations.
Addressing the media before signing the memo,Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey,chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,said the measure was long overdue and assured the country it would strengthen the cohesion of military units.
Although neither offered many details about how the process will be carried out,they were not shy in detailing the difficulty of the task ahead. Perhaps the biggest hurdle,they said,will be designing a system of physical fitness standards that does not discriminate against women – consciously or unconsciously.
Such an issue is sure to be prevalent in high-intensity jobs like special operations forces and Navy SEALs. Panetta and Dempsey would not definitively answer how policy changes would include women in those areas.
“I think we all believe there are women who will meet those standards,” Dempsey said. But the challenge,he said,will be to make sure enough women make the cut during the several years for self-sustaining gender inclusion to take root.
The two men cautiously – and at times vaguely – discussed the balancing act of implementing the policy: inclusion on one hand,and maintaining superior physical requirements on the other.
“Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the quality of the job,” Panetta said of readjusting qualifications for fairness.
“But if they meet the qualifications,there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a chance,” he said later at the news conference.
About 237,000 additional positions will be available for women once the order fully goes into effect,according to Department of Defense estimates.
The order likely will be the last major act for Panetta,who is leaving the administration. He also oversaw the inclusion of openly gay soldiers less than a year and a half ago when Don’t Ask,Don’t Tell was repealed.
The military services are required to submit detailed plans by May 15,but the entire process isn’t scheduled to be complete for almost two years.
In reality,women already have been serving in dangerous combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan post 9/11 – roughly 280,000 according to the Department of Defense. But officially,their job descriptions have listed them as support roles,even positions that require using weapons and possibly being in the line of fire.
“This is a proud day for our country,” Senate Committee on Armed Services member Kirsten Gillibrand,D-N.Y.,said in a statement. “We need to recognize the brave women who are already fighting and dying shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in uniform on the front lines.”
President Barack Obama said he called Panetta earlier in the day to give his support for the policy and said in a statement that women have become “indispensable” in the military.
“Many have made the ultimate sacrifice,including more than 150 women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan – patriots whose sacrifices show that valor knows no gender,” the statement said.
Women could be required to register for the draft in the near future,although it is too early to tell if that policy will change. A 1981 Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed that only men are eligible the draft,citing Congress’ decision to allow only men to serve in combat positions.
“I don’t know who the hell controls Selective Service,if you want to know the truth,” Panetta said. “Whoever does,they’re going to have to exercise some judgment based on what we just did.”
Reach Reporter Ian Kullgren at [email protected] or 202-326-2143. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.