The U.S. military last week announced it is opening all combat positions to women, a move that allows women to apply to approximately 220,000 jobs previously limited to men.
The roles, which include positions in infantry, armor, reconnaissance and special operations units, will be available to women who qualify and not simply be given to fill quotas, said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday announcing the new policy.
“As long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before,” Carter said. “There will be no exceptions. They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
Congress has 30 days to review the change, which is expected to be implemented in January.
The U.S. military has been studying the issue of allowing women to serve in combat roles for many years. Women are currently able to work in about 90 percent of military jobs. This most recent policy change comes following athree-year Pentagon review and is the latest of inclusive steps by the military.
In 1948 the armed services allowed for racial integration, and in 1975 it opened its military academies to women. In 1993, women were allowed to become fighter pilots and serve on combat ships, and the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military was lifted in 2011.
InAugust, the Army allowed women who meet grueling standards to qualify for its elite Ranger squad.
And while women technically have not served in combat roles on the ground, Carter noted that women have been forced to engage in combat to defend themselves in recent years. Nearly 300,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Women (have) seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” he said.
More than 16 women have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, representing approximately 2.5 percent of the 6,431 U.S. service members who died, according to Department of Defense.
The military faced a deadline set by the Obama administration three years ago to integrate women into all combat jobs by January or ask for specific exemptions.
The U.S. Marine Corps had sought an exemption that women continue to be banned from some positions, especially infantry.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., who was the top general in the Marine Corps and now serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had argued to keep some roles limited to men, saying studies showed military units that include women are not as effective as units that are entirely male.
Carter, however, decided that none of the armed services would be exempt. “We are a joint force, and I’ve decided to make a decision that applies to the entire force,” he said, adding, “To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half” of the population and must “harness the skills and perspectives that women have to offer.”
Dunford did not join Carter at the podium when the secretary of defense made the announcement last week, but did release a statement saying he would support the decision even if he does not agree with it. “In the wake of the secretary’s decision, my responsibility is to ensure his decision is properly implemented,” he said. “Moving forward, my focus is to lead the full integration of women in a manner that maintains our joint warfighting capability, ensures the health and welfare of our people, and optimizes how we leverage talent across the Joint Force.”
Carter did reiterate that every service member would have to meet the standards, and “there must be no quotas or perception thereof.”
“It’s a thrilling day for women serving in the military and for women across the country,” said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, in a statement. “We applaud today’s announcement that knocks down the last remaining official barrier to women’s military service and ensures the full integration of women into all military jobs, positions and units. Thousands of women will now have the opportunity to be all that they can be and our nation’s military will be the stronger for it. Hip, hip, hooray!”
A statement from the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, both Republicans, said Congress will use the next 30 days to “thoroughly review” thw change. “Secretary Carter’s decision to open all combat positions to women will have a consequential impact on our service members and our military’s warfighting capabilities,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas in the statement. “The Senate and House Armed Services Committees intend to carefully and thoroughly review all relevant documentation related to today’s decision.”
President Barack Obama, for his part, applauded the decision saying it’s a benefit both for women as well as for the military.
“In recent years, we ended ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and allowed gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly and it’s made our military stronger,” Obama said in a statetement. “As Commander in Chief, I know that this change, like others before it, will again make our military even stronger. Our armed forces will draw on an even wider pool of talent.”