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Despite Objections from Marines, Defense Secretary Opens All Combat Roles to Women

(DoD photo by Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter received last month recommendations from all service chiefs on opening combat positions to women, and today announced his decision to open all positions across the board despite objections from the Marine Corps.

Carter said this now meant that combat roles may not be voluntary for women. “As a service member you don’t have absolute choice,” he said, adding “women will be subject to same standards” as men when it comes to assignments.

On the issue of Selective Service, that’s a “matter of legal dispute,” but litigation “won’t affect what I announced today,” Carter said. “It is an issue that’s out there; unfortunately, it’s subject to litigation.”

The Defense secretary said he arrived as his decision as because in the 21st century, the “force of the future” requires “drawing strength from the broadest possible pool of talent.”

“This includes women, because they make over — up over 50 percent of the American population. To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country’s talents and skills. We have to take full advantage of every individual who can meet our standards,” he said.

The issue of women in combat per se, he said, became “no longer a question” but “a reality, because women had 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.”

Currently about 10 percent of positions remain closed to women, including infantry, armor, reconnaissance, and some special operations units.

Carter said after reviewing recommendations from service chiefs, data and surveys, he decided to “proceed with opening all these remaining occupations and positions to women. There will be no exceptions.”

“This means that, 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,” he said. “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. And even more importantly, our military will be better able to harness the skills and perspectives that talented women have to offer.”

The only branch that disagreed with this course of action, the Defense chief said, was the Marine Corps. “While the Marine Corps asked for a partial exception in some areas such as infantry, machine gunner, fire support reconnaissance and others, we are a joint force, and I have decided to make a decision which applies to the entire force,” he said.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who as commandant of the Marine Corps recommended those exceptions, was not at Carter’s side during the announcement in the Pentagon briefing room. “I was the one who took this decision, I’m announcing my decision,” Carter explained when pressed on Dunford’s absence, noting that the chairman would make his own remarks. “I have taken parts of his — the conclusions he drew. Others drew different conclusions, including myself. And that’s the decision I’ve taken, and that’s the direction we’re going to go.”

“Mission effectiveness is most important. Defending this country is our primary responsibility, and it cannot be compromised. That means everyone who serves in uniform — men and women alike — has to be able to meet the high standards for whatever job they’re in. To be sure fairness is also important, because everyone who’s able and willing to serve their country, who can meet those standards, should have the full and equal opportunity to do so. But the important factor in making my decision was to have access to every American who could add strength to the joint force,” Carter said.

He said reviews also found that “some standards previously were either outdated or didn’t reflect the tasks actually required in combat,” and the Pentagon is now “positioned to be better at finding not only the most qualified women, but also the qualified men for military specialties.”

“I’m confident the Defense Department can implement this successfully, because throughout our history we’ve consistently proven ourselves to be a learning organization.”

The reviews included comparative studies of “other elite units like NASA long-duration flight crews and police SWAT teams,” and working with “our international partners to examine how they have integrated women into ground combat roles.”

“How we implement this is key. As Chairman Dunford has noted, simply declaring all career fields open is not successful integration. We must not only continue to implement change thoughtfully, but also track and monitor our progress to ensure we’re doing it right,” Carter said, adding that “leaders must assign tasks and jobs throughout the force based on ability, not gender.”

“There are physical and other differences on average between men and women. While this cannot be applied to every man or woman, it is real and must be taken into account in implementation. Thus far, we’ve only seen small numbers of women qualified to meet our high physical standards in some of our most physically demanding combat occupational specialties, and going forward, we shouldn’t be surprised if these small numbers are also reflected in areas like recruitment, voluntary assignment, retention and advancement in some of these specific specialties,” he said.

He noted surveys that indicated some servicemembers “have a perception that integration would be pursued at the cost of combat effectiveness.”

“Leaders have to be clear that mission effectiveness comes first, and I’m confident that given the strength of our leaders throughout the ranks, over time, these concerns will no longer be an issue.” He also noted “international realities” of the battlefield could affect “the specialties that will be opened by this decision.”

Positions will open to women 30 days from now, with integration plans from the service chiefs due to the Defense secretary by that time.

“It’s important to keep all this in perspective. Implementation won’t happen overnight. And while at the end of the day this will make us a better and stronger force, there still will be problems to fix and challenges to overcome. We shouldn’t diminish that,” Carter stressed.

“At the same time, we should also remember that the military has long prided itself on being a meritocracy, where those who serve are judged not based on who they are or where they come from, but rather what they have to offer to help defend this country. That’s why we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known.”

Pressed on reports that said mixed-gender Marine unit weren’t as effective, Carter called the studies “just not definitive, not determinative.”

“Averages tell you something about the need to pay attention to numbers, team dynamics and so forth. But they do not determine whether an individual is qualified to participate in a given unit,” he said.

On reports that showed a higher number of injuries for women in Marine combat roles, the Defense secretary said that “doesn’t suggest to me that women shouldn’t be admitted to those specialties, if they’re qualified.”

“But it’s going to — something that’s — needs — that’s going to need to be taken into account in implementation. So these are real phenomena that are — affect gender — that are, rather, affected by gender and need to be taken into account in implementation,” Carter said.

“Combat effectiveness is the critical criterion. And it — this change will be implemented, and I’m confident can be implemented in a way that will enhance combat effectiveness, not detract from combat effectiveness.”