Officials from all military service branches told Congress today they can open combat positions to women by 2016 without lowering physical or performance standards.
Six months after the Pentagon announced it was lifting a ban on women serving in ground-combat units, military officials charged with implementing the policy said they’ve started the studies needed to make it work.
“I don’t envy you,” Representative Joe Heck, a Nevada Republican, said today at a hearing by the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee. “As you know, there’s not universal acceptance of this concept.”
Ending the ban will open as many as 237,000 positions to women by January 2016. The three-year process will require what officials describe as a methodical review of the physical standards needed for each combat job to determine how best to measure fitness and whether some positions will need to remain restricted to men.
“We’re not going to lower standards,” said Juliet Beyler, the Defense Department’s director of officer and enlisted personnel management. “It’s not a matter of lowering or raising standards. The key is to validate the standard to make sure it’s the right standard for the occupation.”
While women have been a permanent part of the military services -- as opposed to separate auxiliaries -- since a 1948 act of Congress, they have long been excluded from infantry, artillery and other ground-combat jobs. After a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan that sent more than 280,000 female troops into war zones, Pentagon leaders and women who served have said gender discrimination no longer makes sense.
“I’m real excited to get this done,” said Representative Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, who described the task as providing equal opportunity for women. “Combat performance is an important issue when people are looking at moving up in all of these organizations.”
The plan wasn’t embraced as whole-heartedly by all members of the panel.
Representative Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, said she was worried that integrating women into small ground-combat units risked an increase of sexual assaults in the ranks.
“Have you anticipated what’s going to happen?” Walorski asked. “What’s happening now doesn’t work. Is there research? Is there a plan?”
Beyler said expanding opportunities for women is part of the Pentagon’s strategy to combat sexual assaults. “The more we treat service members equally, the more likely they are to treat each other with respect,” she said.
For the Marines, where women are 7 percent of the force, “it’s going to be a crawl-walk-run process, but we’re looking at that,” said Marine Corps Lieutenant General Robert Milstead, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs.
Representative Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, suggested men and women may need different training to reach the same standards.
“Yes, you want the standards to be gender-neutral, but you may need to train for the standards in different ways in order to have success,” Tsongas said.
Milstead said the Marines already have gender-specific boot camps. “They need to be nurtured different,” he said. “They just need different steps as they go. They get to the same place. They’re Marines.”
The path to the front combat lines may be most complicated for special-operations forces, such as those that killed al- Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“Our concerns about integration generally center upon the impact on unit cohesion,” Major General Bennet Sacolick, director of force management and development for the U.S. Special Operations Command, said in written testimony.
Sacolick said his command has asked RAND Corp. to provide an independent analysis of qualification standards, with an assessment to be completed by July 2014 and recommendations to be submitted by July 2015.
Army Lieutenant General Howard Bromberg, deputy chief of staff for Army personnel, said he’s prepared to respond to misperceptions that standards will be lowered.
“We’re going to have to lay the facts out,” he said.
The use of valid, equal standards for men and women should make clear the fairness of job qualifications, he said.
“We’re going to eliminate males in some cases,” Bromberg said. “A standard’s a standard.”
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