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Pentagon Moving Toward Women in Combat Weighs Standards

The move could mean as many as 237,000 combat positions previously not available to women would be open to them by January 2016. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images
The move could mean as many as 237,000 combat positions previously not available to women would be open to them by January 2016. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

June 19 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. military services offered glimpses yesterday of how they will deliver on the Pentagon’s pledge to let women apply for front-line combat positions, and of the challenges in devising new, gender-neutral standards for warriors.

Army Rangers and Navy SEALs are among the special-operations units that are considering accepting female candidates, military officials said at a Pentagon briefing.

“I remain confident that we will retain the trust and confidence of the American people by opening positions to women, while ensuring that all members entering these newly opened positions can meet the standards required to maintain our warfighting capability,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a May 21 memo that was released yesterday along with planning documents from the services.

The military services and the Special Operations Command are beginning a year of research and scientific studies intended to design and test fitness and other standards that can be applied uniformly, without weakening them for women. The moves could mean that as many as 237,000 combat positions previously not available to women would be open to them by January 2016 as the military acts on policy changes set in motion at the start of this year by Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta.

That includes specific jobs that previously were closed to women as well as entire military occupations, such as infantry, armor and special operations, that haven’t been open to female troops, Juliet Beyler, the Defense Department’s director of officer and enlisted personnel management, said at the briefing.

Army, Marines

The Army plans to re-evaluate the physical and mental performance standards used for all military occupational specialties, especially those that have been closed to women, according to an Army memo that was among the documents released yesterday. The validation of gender-neutral standards for the Army Ranger School is due by July 1, 2015, with a decision on standards for armor and infantry specialties no later than September 2015.

The Marine Corps has determined that more than 250 of the service’s 335 military occupational specialties are physically demanding and has begun testing male and female Marines on those tasks, Colonel John Aytes, head of the military policy branch of the Marine Corps, said at the briefing.

Military veterans such as Billy Birdzell, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and special operations team leader, agreed yesterday that developing uniform standards will be a difficult task.

One Standard

“We have one shooting standard, one swimming standard, one standard for driving Humvees,” Birdzell, who’s pursuing a graduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington, said yesterday in an interview. “If we are going to have women be able to do every single job as a man -- with the same pay and benefits -- then they should be held to every one of those single standards.”

Still, the military services should maintain the separate physical standards they now apply for women in non-combat roles, said retired California Air National Guard Major Mary Hegar, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for service as a combat rescue pilot in Afghanistan.

“There’s no clear-cut answer to the question, ‘How many push-ups does it take to pull a man from a burning truck?’” Hegar said in an interview. “Does the number go down from 42 to 38? I don’t know.”

The military branches can request exemptions to continue barring women from certain specialties and the defense secretary would decide whether to make such exceptions, Pentagon officials said in January.

Special Operations

Opening jobs to women in the Special Operations Command is an area where “much work remains to be done,” Admiral William McRaven, head of the command, wrote in a March 22 memo released yesterday, adding a note of caution on efforts to add women to the ranks.

Commandos operate in “small, self-contained teams that usually typify our operations, many of which are in austere, politically sensitive environments for extended periods.” Those aspects are being studied, McRaven wrote.

The Special Operations Command plans to survey its current troops on their concerns about adding women to their units, Major General Bennet Sacolick, director of force management for the command, said at the Pentagon briefing.

“I hear the rank-and-file. Their concerns are, you know, once again, that you got a 12-men” unit and “what are the implications there?” Sacolick said. He cited “privacy issues” and health and welfare concerns for “female operators in an austere environment.”

Lines Erased

The survey will be similar to a study done among soldiers before the Defense Department lifted its ban on gays openly serving in the military.

Women, who make up about 15 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel, increasingly have been exposed to combat as terrorism and unconventional warfare have erased the traditional front lines of battle. Women also fly combat aircraft, including helicopters and carrier-based Navy fighters, and the Navy has begun assigning women to duty on submarines.

More than 280,000 women have deployed over the past decade in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Pentagon. At least 144 female troops have been killed in those wars, out of more than 6,600 U.S. dead, and more than 860 women have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.

Sexual Assaults

The debate over expanding combat roles for women is unfolding even as the military copes with what Hagel has called a “huge problem” of sexual assaults. The two issues may be related, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in January.

By eliminating the distinction that only men are treated as warriors, Dempsey said, “I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

Dempsey’s observation rings true for Hegar, the combat rescue pilot, who’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the military’s exclusion of women from combat roles.

“I was forward-deployed with plenty of stinky men in ways we couldn’t shower, and I wasn’t assaulted or embarrassed or anything like that,” Hegar said. “It’s all about accepting that we cannot legislate behavior, but it’s a military order and discipline and it’s a leadership thing.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Washington at gratnam1@bloomberg.net: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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