(CNSNews.com) - "Are you committed to allowing women to serve in all positions and to gender-neutral standards for each of the services?" Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-N.Y.) asked Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
"I'm certainly committed to gender-neutral standards," Carter replied. He noted that the armed services are now examining whether there are any positions in the military that should not be open to women.
"I strongly incline towards opening them all to women, but I am also respectful of the circumstances and of professional military judgement in this regard...If I am confirmed, I'd want to confer with our own leaders in the Department of Defense, with you and others who have thought carefully about that problem and try to come to a view."
Carter agreed that the problem of sexual assault "persists in our military; it's widespread in our society, but it's particularly offensive in the military community because the military ethos is one of honor and -- and, uh, trust. You have to trust the person, so to speak, who's in the foxhole next to you."
Carter said the military puts people in situations of "austere deployment," and in situations "where the hierarchy of military life is a necessity in battle." This "military context," he said, "also provide opportunities...for predators. So it is more offensive in military life even than in civilian life, and we've got to root it out."
Carter said he's grateful to Gillibrand for "keeping the heat on."
Gillibrand also raised the topic of retaliation against troops who report sexual assault. She pointed to a survey that said 62 percent of those who reported such crimes were retaliated against. "So I'm highly concerned that the military is still failing in living up to their zero tolerance policy. Do you agree?" Gillibrand asked Carter.
"I do agree," he replied. "Retaliation is a dimension of the problem that to me, at least, is-- is uh, uh, becoming increasingly apparent."
He said the more the military digs into it, "the more dimensions of it we come to understand. And I think the idea that victims are retaliated against, not only by the hierarchy above them but also by their peers, is something that is unacceptable, that we have to combat also."
Gillibrand urged Carter to professionalize and improve the military's criminal justice system, which to her means removing criminal prosecution decisions from the military chain of command to independent military prosecutors.
Two years ago, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. military would "open up service opportunities for women as fully as possible."
He announced that female troops would no longer be excluded from direct ground combat; and he said all "all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service" would be eliminated.
"We are all committed to implementing this change without compromising readiness or morale or our warfighting capabilities. Positions will be open to women following service reviews, using the Joint Chiefs' guiding principles, and following congressional notification procedures established by law," Panetta said at the time.
Those reviews are ongoing.
The Defense Department has set a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline for all military positions and occupations to be open to women, unless officials can justify their decision not to open certain positions.