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Mattis: No 'Problems Brought to Me' with Women in Infantry, But 'Jury Is Out' on Concept

(DoD photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters Wednesday that he wasn’t degrading women serving in infantry roles by telling cadets at the Virginia Military Institute that “the jury is out” on women in combat.

During the Q&A portion of Mattis’ Tuesday talk with cadets, one male cadet noted “there are a lot of badass women here — some physically fitter than I am and smarter than I am.”

“But I remember I was doing some research on the Marine Corps’ experiment to see if female in combat arms makes us more combat-effective,” the cadet asked. “And I would just like to hear your thoughts on that.”

Mattis called it “a very, very tough issue because it goes from some people’s perspective of what kind of society do we want.”

“In the event of trouble, you’re sleeping at night in your family home and you’re the dad, mom, whatever.  And you hear glass break downstairs, who grabs a baseball bat and gets between the kids’ door and whoever broke in, and who reaches for the phone to call 911? In other words, it goes to the most almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable,” the Defense secretary continued. “This is an issue right now that we have Army, Navy, Marine all looking at as we speak, and that is the close quarters fight being what it is. You know, is it a strength or a weakness to have women in that circumstance?”

“Right now, what my job is is to make certain that as the chief of staff of the Army or commandant of the Marine Corps or chief of Naval Operations, bring problems to me — chief of staff of the Air Force — and I help them solve them,” he added. “Today, because so few women have signed up along these lines, we don’t even have data at this time that I can answer your question, OK?”

Mattis described the infantry as “cocky, they’re rambunctious, they’re necessarily macho… I would say even evil environment.”

“This is a policy that I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small we have no data on it. We’re hoping to get data soon. There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few. Right now it’s not even dozens; it’s that few. So when we get a little more data I’ll give you a much more objective answer. Clearly the jury is out on it but what we’re trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed if it can,” he added. “The other nations that have had this for 20 years still have too few women in the infantry ranks to even draw a conclusion. So I can’t give you a good answer right now.”

Asked Thursday at the Pentagon if his comments were unsupportive of women serving on the front lines, Mattis said female cadets took his words to mean “that the door was open — that, granted, we don’t have enough females in the infantry to make some kind of quantitative assessment.”

“They took it just the opposite from how it was written about by the Pentagon press — by one number of Pentagon press. So that was interesting,” he said.

Asked for his thoughts on women serving in infantry positions, Mattis replied, “I prefer just to say that I handle problems when they’re brought to me. I have not had problems brought to me.”

“If you look at other nations that have opened infantry positions to women, you see a very small — very small number. We can’t even draw statistical performance indicators from other nations right now. So I don’t talk about things that I don’t have data on,” he added. “Again, I handle problems. A problem has not been brought to my attention, so there’s nothing more I can say on it.”