(CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that whether they are male or female "everyone is entitled to a chance" to become a combat soldier in a military that will now adopt "gender netural" standards.
“If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job--and let me be clear, we’re not talking about reducing the qualifications for a job--if they can meet the qualifications for the job then they should have the right to serve,” Panetta said at a Pentagon press conference.
The Defense Department announced today that it would rescind its 1994 policy restricting women from serving in combat-focused positions such as infantry units, potentially opening up 230,000 positions to female service members.
Known as the Direct Ground Combat Exclusion Rule, the 1994 policy excludes women from two different types of military occupations. The first type involves combat positions in infantry and artillery units, from which women are always excluded. The second type involves positions within infantry and artillery units such as medics that are otherwise open to women in non-combat units.
The integration of women into these positions will not happen until 2016, by which time the services will have to determine which combat positions are open to women and which ones are not.
Panetta made it clear that “not everyone” will be a combat soldier, saying that though individuals may want to serve in combat-focused units those that do not qualify will not get to do so.
“Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier,” Panetta said. “But everyone is entitled to a chance.”
Gen. Dempsey said that the military will “extend opportunities” to women who want to serve in combat-focused positions, clarifying that while the standards for those positions will be “gender neutral” they would be based on “what it actually takes to do the job.”
“We will extend opportunities to women in a way that maintains readiness, morale, and unit cohesion,” he said. “This means setting clear standards of performance for all occupations based on what it actually takes to do the job. It also means ensuring that these standards are gender neutral in occupations that will open to women.”
Women have served in combat for the past decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with 152 dying in those wars, according to the Pentagon.
Gen. Dempsey said that it will now be up to the individual services to explain why any position – including those with Navy SEAL units or the Army’s Delta Force – should still exclude women.
“If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that women couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the Secretary why is it that high, does it really have to be that high,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey also said the Joint Chiefs believe that some women will be able to meet the qualifications for elite Special Operations Forces units.
“I think we all believe that there will be women who can meet those [Special Operations Forces] standards,” Dempsey said.
Critics of the recently announced policy say that allowing women to serve in combat-focused units, particularly as elite troops, would damage the readiness and capabilities of those units by forcing commanders to make special accommodations in the field.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin – former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command – said that the move was “another social experiment” and that it must not jeopardize the military’s high standards for elite and combat-focused troops.
“The people making this decision are doing so as part of another social experiment,” Boykin said Wednesday in a statement released by the conservative Family Research Council, where he is now employed as executive vice president.
“These units have the mission of closing with and destroying the enemy, sometimes in close hand-to-hand combat. They are often in sustained operations for extended periods, during which they have no base of operations nor facilities. Their living conditions are primal in many situations with no privacy for personal hygiene or normal functions,” Boykin explained.
“Is the social experiment worth placing this burden on small unit leaders? I think not.”
Proponents of the move, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), note that women already serve in combat and have for some time, arguing that women should be allowed in any role, as long as military capability is not reduced.
“I respect and support Secretary Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat. The fact is that American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces,” McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.
“As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world – particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units,” he said.